As Boeing Inches Toward 737 MAX Recertification, 787 and Lunar Lander Go Sour, Charleston v. Seattle Looms

By Lambert Strether

With such a ginormous news flow, we haven’t consolidated all the bad news about Boeing for you, dear reader. Hence this round-up. There are four ongoing Boeing stories — I think I should say horror stories — to consider: The 737 MAX recertification process (with accompanying post mortem), two separate 787 manufacturing breakdowns, two separate investigations into Boeing’s Federal contracts for a Lunar Lander, and the corporate decision whether to consolidate production in Seattle, WA or Charleston, SC, forced by the collapse of demand under COVID. Any one would be challenging for a company with a functional corporate culture and good management. Unfortunately for us all, and especially the workers, we’re talking about Boeing. Let’s take each story in turn, starting with the 737.

The 737 MAX Recertification

The 737, once Boeing’s cash cow, has been grounded since March 2019. There are still a number of steps to go before it can fly again (presumably in the fourth quarter after regulatory approvals are complete). From Travel Weekly, “Boeing 737 Max moves closer to return“:

There remain a series of steps to complete before the FAA can rescind the grounding order and aircraft re-enter service.

These include a review of Boeing’s design documentation, a technical advisory board review and report, an FAA ‘determination of compliance’ review, a notice of pending safety actions and a final directive on the issues for the grounding and advice to airlines.

Currently, Boeing’s proposal for training flight crews is under review at Gatwick. From CNBC, “FAA to begin key Boeing 737 Max training review on Monday in London“:

A training review for the grounded Boeing 737 Max will begin on Monday in London, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said, in a key milestone for the plane’s eventual return to service.

The FAA said the Joint Operations Evaluation Board for the Boeing 737 Max will take place at London Gatwick Airport and meet for approximately nine days “to review Boeing’s proposed training for 737 Max flight crews” and will include civil aviation authorities and airline flight crews from the United States, Canada, Brazil and the European Union.

‘After the nine-day review, the results will be incorporated into the draft FAA Flight Standardization Board report, which will then be open for public comment.

Then, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson will undergo recommended training and conduct an evaluation flight at the controls of a Boeing 737 Max. He will share observations with FAA technical staff.

I think it’s pretty terrific that Dickson’s going to fly the Max personally. I suppose you could say it’s a stunt, but it’s also skin in the game. (I’ve recommended a similar procedure for Federal electeds and political appointees for a Covid vaccine, should one eventuate).

Meanwhile, the 737 MAX crash post mortem grinds on, making everybody responsible for the debacle look very bad. From the Seattle Times, “Boeing 737 MAX program leaders who approved flight control system say they didn’t know key details“:

In testimony to congressional investigators probing the fatal crashes of two 737 MAX jets,Michael Teal, the chief engineer on Boeing’s 737 MAX program who signed off on the jet’s technical configuration, said he was unaware of crucial technical details of the flight control system that triggered inadvertently and caused the crashes.

He was also unaware that the system could activate repeatedly, as it did in the crash flights, relentlessly pushing down the noses of the jets each time the pilots pulled them up.

“I had no knowledge that MCAS had a repeat function in it during the development,” Teal told investigators. “The technical leaders well below my level would have gone into that level of detail.”

Likewise, only “when it showed up in the press” later, did Teal learn that a warning light that was supposed to tell pilots if two angle of attack sensors disagreed wasn’t working on most MAXs, including the two that crashed — even though Boeing engineers had discovered this glitch in August 2017, more than a year before the first accident.

And Teal, who said he “signed off on the configuration of the airplane to include the MCAS function,” couldn’t recall any discussion of the decision to remove all mention of MCAS from the pilot flight manuals.

Dude, you’re the chief engineer, not some pencil-necked MBA. You’re supposed to know this stuff. (Note also the phrase “technical leaders,” “leader” being one of my crotchets. “Leader” doesn’t give any indication of function, and the effect is to erase accountability.)

So that’s where we are with the 737, a debacle that’s bad enough. We now turn to the 787, whose woes — if you are really suspicious-minded and inclined to mistrust Boeing management — could give rise to the suspicion that Boeing doesn’t care about manufacturing quality carbon fibre aircraft. (At one point, back during the 787 battery fire episode, I riffed a few times on “Boeing’s union-busting plastic plane,” and got some justified pushback from readers that carbon fibre wasn’t plastic, and was a proven techology. But I think that riff is looking pretty good now!)

787 Manufacturing Woes

Over the past few months, there have been 787 manufacturing problems with mating body sections (8 aircraft), the vertical tail fin (680 aircraft), and the horizontal stabilizer (900 aircraft); the issues appeared in the press in that order, so that’s how I’m going to write it up. Nobody has presented a single master theory of flaws in Boeing’s manfacturing process, but all the issues seem to have to do with “shims,” which I’ll explain as I go along. In the first issue (body sections), I’ll look at quality assurance. For the second issue (the vertical tail fin), I’ll look at the actual manufacturing practice used on the the shop floor. The third issue (the stabilizer) seems to have the same causes as the first two. Since (as of this writing) 981 787 ScreamDreamliners have been built, these defects affect a substantial portion of the fleet: 70% (for tail fins) and 92% (stabilizers). Note that Boeing had shim problems with the 787 back in 2012, so this is not a first. Not a good look!

8 aircraft: body shim and skin-flatness issues. This was the 787 manufacturing issue to come to light in the press (and one might speculate that it did so because it both involves fewer planes, and is more complex to explain, since it involves an interaction between two components, both of which must be defective if there is to be a problem). From Crain’s Chicago Business Review, “Another Boeing 787 slowdown that puts fleet under the microscope“:

[The fuselage issue] came to light late last month when Boeing told 787 operators to ground eight of the jets. Boeing earlier identified manufacturing issues in which workers at its South Carolina factory mated two fuselage barrels at the rear of the aircraft. The joiners, known as shims, weren’t as wide as the gap they were supposed to fill but were within engineering tolerance — the allowable margin for variation. On a small batch of aircraft, however, the improperly sized shims rubbed up against roughness in the inner lining.

In combination, the two issues were determined to weaken the carbon-fiber hulls so that they might not withstand the highest loads the aircraft could encounter in fight. All eight of the aircraft taken out of service for inspection and repairs were delivered last year, said one of the people familiar with the matter.

The company widely uses a tool known as “predictive shimming” with the 787 to measure by laser and precisely build shims to reinforce gaps in the plane’s structure.

With the [8] grounded 787s, a “software notification designed to alert when a shim exceeded the maximum thickness per engineering specifications was not used, leading to shims being produced that may not have fully met engineering requirements,” Boeing said in a letter to aircraft operators that was seen by Bloomberg.

Grounding an aircraft over a manufacturing defect is a big deal. From the Seattle Times, “Boeing admits a new manufacturing flaw on the 787 and tallies more 737 MAX cancellations“:

A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) engineer, who works on commercial airplane safety issues but cannot be identified because he spoke without agency permission, said Tuesday that although planes have been grounded in the past when in-service accidents revealed design flaws, “grounding airplanes for manufacturing flaws is unprecedented and unbelievable.”

So why did the bad shims pass muster? They didn’t. From The Air Current, “Scarce quality data on 787 skins as FAA peels back Boeing onion“:

While the spotlight is on the eight grounded jets, the concern, however, is more about each issue separately and its reflection on Boeing’s Quality Manufacturing System (QMS). Principally that the QMS didn’t catch the errors as the company has sought to justify reduced inspections in areas of the assembly process that have a history of “accuracy and stability,” according to the people familiar with the issues.

In the case of the aft fuselage join now under scrutiny by the FAA, the quality issues have revealed that the process was neither accurate nor stable with both the shim and skin surface issues cropping up.

In the five months between the 737 Max crashes of Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian 302, Boeing made the case to publications like The Seattle Times that it was ready to cut back 450 quality inspector positions in 2019 and another 450 in 2020 because of high tech tools it believed it had fielded successfully to create “proven processes” that only needed occasional and infrequent checks.

The process of using more automated and time-saving technologies to develop shims for the 787’s structure was one at the center of its argument that it didn’t require as much oversight from quality assurance staff. Boeing specifically cited a new tool designed to speed up shimming on the 787. The eight grounded 787s were manufactured by Boeing in 2019.

Those familiar with the FAA investigation into the 787’s quality concerns say that the assembly of the Section 47/48 and aft pressure bulkhead at the company’s North Charleston, S.C. facility has been considered to be one of those stable processes that the company can complete consistently.

So we’re not going to inspect work that we’re sure we can do without defects. What could go wrong?

680 aircraft: vertical tail fin. So here is how a manufacturing defect — which as we shall was the result of another shimming fail — made it all the way through production and was spotted by an alert mechanic (who’s probably being demoted or humiliated in some way, since no good deed goes unpunished). From KOMO News, a TV station (!) owned by Sinclair (!!), in the Seattle area, “Report raises new questions about structural integrity of Boeing 787 Dreamliner“:

New documents obtained exclusively by KOMO News Radio show the company could be be facing new questions about the structural integrity of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner, this time involving the vertical tail fin on that aircraft.

It’s not clear what airline the the mechanic worked for, but the technician noticed something wrong on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner while working on the tail of the aircraft. The mechanic noticed a slight dimple, also known as a depression, on the vertical fin, near the spot where it joins with the aircraft’s fuselage.

While a tiny dent or ding isn’t a problem on a car or SUV, they’re not too common on a multi-million dollar passenger jet. The mechanic reported the issue, prompting federal investigators to scrutinize nearly every plane in the entire Dreamliner fleet, according to documentation examined by KOMO News Radio.

One federal document focuses on issues with shims.

“This depression was located at a joint common to the Main Torque Box (MTB) skin, Rear Spar, and Route Fitting #4. Shims were properly installed prior to drilling of holes,” an investigator wrote. “Investigation suggests these shims were later discarded before final fastener installation.

(Discarded how? Thrown in the trash? Isn’t waste material tracked?) At this point, we remember Boeing’s lack of quality controls, above. Without the shim, there was a gap. However:

“You always want to avoid any gaps,” the retired Boeing engineer told KOMO News. “That’s what they use shims for. Because otherwise, you’re just going to pre-load. You’re going to crank it. The fact that you have dimples, that’s very indicative that you’ve got pull-up in the fasteners.”

Pause for explanation of engineering jargon (and I bet we’ve got readers who can correct me). From Eng-Tips, which is a really fun board:

Preload: obviously not desirable. You deform the material to close a gap. This induces extra tensile (bending) stresses which 1) reduce fatigue life and 2) is conducive to stress corrosion (which occurs when a steady tensile stress is maintained in the midst of a corrosive environment).

Pull-Up: Occurs when a gap exists between 2 faying surfaces and the joint is tightened. The result is that the gap closes due to local bending. This increases the stress state, and results in high potential for stress corrosion fatigue.

So, for this layperson, the assembler on the shop floor overtightened the fastener to compensate for the gap left by the missing shim. Hence the dimple. (I am guessing “pre-load,” because the material is already under stress, before additional, designed-for, stress is placed upon it). Back to KOMO:

The increased preload combined with the design loads could exceed the limit load capability of the joint,” [the Federal report found].

The limit load on a plane is the maximum weight allowed in a normal flight. Anything more than the limit load could cause strain on the structure of the plane, and over time, that strain can lead to serious issues if left unaddressed, experts say.

The federal document outlines what many engineers say is a worst-case and unlikely scenario, but not impossible: “The condition could result in failure of a PSE (principal structural element) to sustain limit load and could adversely affect the structural integrity of the airplane and result in loss of control of the airplane.”

A retired [I’ll bet] Boeing engineer who requested anonymity in order to speak freely notes the importance of PSE in aerospace.

“It’s any piece of structure on an airplane whose failure would result in a catastrophic event.”

So, when we looked at shim problems in the 787 fuselage, we found quality assurance was lacking. Now, when we look at shim problems in the 787 tailfin, we find that assembly workers ended up, in essence, torquing fasteners so hard the material around them dimpled. That’s not a good look, either. And now to the newest problem, the horizontal stabilizer.

900 aircraft: horizontal stablizer. From Bloomberg:

Almost every Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner may have a newly disclosed manufacturing flaw in its horizontal stabilizer, said a person familiar with the matter.

While Boeing says the issue doesn’t pose an immediate hazard, engineers are studying whether the fault could prematurely age the jets’ carbon-fiber structure.

(“Prematurely age”…. Everything old is new again!) And from Crains:

The flaw involving the horizontal stabilizers stemmed from components at a Boeing fabrication facility that were “clamped together” with greater force than engineering recommended, the company told reporters Tuesday. That led to “improper gap verification and shimming,”

It’s the same deal.

Lunar Lander Investigation

From Reuters, “Exclusive: Boeing to face independent ethics probe over lunar lander bid – document“:

Boeing Co is submitting to an independent review of its compliance and ethics practices, according to an agreement struck with NASA and the U.S. Air Force and seen by Reuters, part of widening fallout from its behavior in bidding to supply lunar landing vehicles.

Boeing’s space business was already under NASA scrutiny for its botched 2019 test flight of its Starliner space capsule.

The agreement calls for Boeing to pay a “third party expert” to assess its ethics and compliance programs and review training procedures for executives who liaise with government officials, citing “concerns related to procurement integrity” during NASA’s Human Landing System competition.

Swell. There’s also a criminal probe. From Reuters, “U.S. prosecutors probe ex-NASA official, Boeing over space contract: sources“:

The U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal probe into whether NASA’s former head of human spaceflight gave Boeing Co BA.N improper guidance during a lucrative lunar-lander contract competition, two people familiar with the matter said on Friday.

In the probe, opened in June, prosecutors are focusing on communication between Loverro and Boeing space executive Jim Chilton in late January, during a blackout period for the Human Landing System competition, one of the sources said.

In April, NASA bypassed Boeing – an industry juggernaut with deep ties to space travel – and awarded contracts worth a combined $1 billion to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Amazon.com Inc AMZN.O founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Leidos Inc affiliate Dynetics to build lunar landing vehicles that can carry astronauts to the moon by 2024.

Well, it’s not like Boeing has any reputational issues. Or needs the money.

Everett, Charleston, or both?

Finally, Covid has destroyed demand for aircraft. Boeing, with main assembly plants at Everett and Charleston, has excess capacity. What to do? From Leeham News and Analysis, “Pontifications: Boeing SC makes its case for 787 production consolidation—and it favors Everett“:

In the course of just two weeks, reports emerged about the grounding of eight 787s due to manufacturing defects from the Boeing SC plant; the possibility that more than 100 airplanes are potentially affected; and there is potentially a defect in the mating of the vertical fin to the fuselage.

Quality control at the Charleston plant has been a major issue since it opened, even after Boeing bought it from Alenia and a joint venture between Alenia and Vought. Employee turnover at Charleston historically is higher than desired, which hurts QC.

The Everett (WA) plant, with its long-time workers, have fixed traveled work from 787s emerging from the Charleston plant since inception. Some airlines refuse to take delivery of airplanes assembled in Charleston. (The Charleston Post and Courier last year published a damning story about this, complete with documentation about the poor QC.)

The Wall Street Journal reported last Monday—the Labor Day Holiday in the US—that QC issues at Charleston going back a decade are now being reviewed by regulators.

Of course, if union-busting is top-of-mind for Boeing management — they’ve certainly proved that manufacturing quality isn’t — they’ll consolidate in Charleston.

Conclusion

I don’t envy CEO David Calhoun his position. He’s probably safe, though. The Board already — after more than due deliberation — threw one CEO under the bus for the 737 MAX debacle, and it doesn’t seem to have changed things. I don’t want to seem harsh, but Boeing’s cash cow, the 737, turned into a dog. Its supposed star, the 787, is also turning into a dog, and never was a cash cow. How long does this go on?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

56 comments

  1. John

    I cannot think of a reason, good or bad, to be comfortable on a Boeing aircraft. How sad; once it was a great and respected aircraft manufacturer. I cannot quite figure out what sort of company upper management thin ks it is running. I have a strong suspicion as to their management philosophy.

    Reply
    1. albrt

      There is only one management philosophy. It’s called a bust-out. You cannibalize the brand until you can’t anymore. It applies to government of countries as well as corporations.

      TINA.

      Reply
      1. Jim Thomson

        So right. The $40 billion in dividends and stock buybacks over the last few decades were deliberate. Hudson’s parasites are everywhere.

        Reply
      2. Cat Burglar

        Bust-out! Never heard the term before — thank you for bringing it up!

        So a bust-out fraud is when a person deliberately establishes a solid credit record of on-time payments with the intention of eventually maxxing out their credit limit and not repaying. Kind of the Minsky cycle ab ovo!

        In Boeing’s case, it was a multi-decade process by many persons, that began without any intent beyond making a good return.

        But it became something else, didn’t it? Managerialist ideology seems to have formed the intent behind the project (an example would be the use of the return on net assets metric to drive outsourcing as described in LJ Hart-Smith’s wickedly funny Outsourcing – The Cornerstone Of Successful Subcontracting). But now the payoff phase seems to be over.

        Reply
  2. drumlin woodchuckles

    Suppose Boeing goes into liquidation-imminent bankruptcy and begs the tax-funded FedGov for rescue.
    A President Sanders might have agreed under the following conditions: that the South Carolina facilities be entirely closed and sold or torn down, that every executive involved in the move of Corporate Headquarters be fired and that every person those move-makers hired be fired, that New Boeing be forbidden from buying any parts or assistance from beyond America’s borders, and that it become a thoroughly unionized closed shop company.

    Think a President Trump or Joemala would set such conditions?

    Reply
    1. rick shapiro

      What sort of company?-one that has been taken over by the corporate culture of McDonnel-Douglas. Safety for them is just making sure that bureaucratic boxes are checked.
      Many years ago, I worked at the company that designed the stores management system for the F/A-18E/F. McDonnel-Douglas split software responsibility, so that we delivered the hardware with only boot, BIT and I/O software. Because of the split responsibility, I insisted that the system safety hazard analysis (SSHA) include an extra section (not mentioned in the military Data Item Description for SSHAs) that listed actions that must be taken by the higher-level control software (i.e., the customer’s) in order for listed potential hazards to be considered controlled. One of those actions was to periodically verify that the two pickle (release) input signals not disagree with each other. Because McDonnel-Douglas had no bureaucratic method for ensuring that their software department pay attention to the SSHA, bombs were accidentally released over Thailand, fortunately with no casualties. When McDonnel-Douglas came demanding answers, I pointed to the SSHA. They went away and ate their liability.

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I forgot about the McDonnel-Douglas encephalitis which infected Boeing’s brain-command central headquarters.

        Yes, as part of this quid pro quo for Federal Rescue, every single person associated in some way with McDonnel-Douglas would have to be fired from Boeing. Or “refire-tired” or “retire-fired” or something.

        Reply
  3. a different chris

    >Dude, you’re the chief engineer, not some pencil-necked MBA. You’re supposed to know this stuff.

    Well you’d never get this testimony in Japan because he and enough higher-ups to fill said 737 would have offed themselves in shame.

    So that’s something, isn’t it? /s

    Being a technical person who, in my organization is “well below” the status of the equivalent Mr. Teal, this really frosts my cookies.

    Reply
    1. Anon II, First of the Name

      >Dude, you’re the chief engineer, not some pencil-necked MBA. You’re supposed to know this stuff.

      I am extremely critical of Boeing and highly-paid no-nothings that seem to permeate every technical organization, but I am not sure that I agree with this comment. Any complex system is, well, complex. I don’t think that it is even possible for a single person to know every last detail about an intricate piece of machinery (such as an MRI, a hydroelectric generator, a submarine, or an airplane).

      As for Washington Vs Carolina–>my guess is that the ecosystem of aerospace companies in Washington makes it very difficult to be completely removed from the state. My guess is that Boeing is just trying to get the city/state to cough up a lot of dough, the way Amazon did when they were looking for their second headquarters.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        No one individual can ever understand all the elements of a very complex piece of engineering like a modern aircraft. However, it is the responsibility of a chief engineer to have an ‘open door’ so anybody involved in design could go in and share their concerns (even if its about a more senior engineer or decision maker) without fearing that it will be considered a black mark on their record if they are wrong. I’ve worked with lots of engineering managers in my time and all the best ones were open to anyone, including ground floor technicians, approaching them with problems or concerns. Any engineer with a ‘hear no evil, speak no evil’ approach is not a good engineer.

        The problem with the Chief Engineer not knowing about such fundamental matters is not that it indicates that he’s a bad technical engineer – it indicates that he was running a project in which he was not allowing his staff to share any concerns they had in an open manner. He was running a project on a ‘its your problem, fix it’ basis, rather than a genuine teamwork approach. Its cultural, in other words, not a matter of technical skill.

        Reply
      2. Harris

        The key part that was not mentioned is that the Charleston plant is a non-union plant. Hence, the low pay and poor working conditions that lead to a high turnover rate.

        Reply
      3. Larster

        They already have given Boeing millions in tax incentives, etc. only to have Boeing cut employees relentlessly in WA. With the pandemic revenue loss there is no more to give, particularly to a company that you cannot trust.

        Reply
      4. Ken

        My guess is that Boeing is just trying to get the city/state to cough up a lot of dough

        I think it is the 2019 settlement where the WTO agreed with the EU about Boeing receiving illegal subsidies that has this proposal off the table. Washington State wants to entice Boeing to keep the 787 in Everett, but the toolbox is limited.

        Reply
  4. ChrisPacific

    The general impression I have from all these stories is that Boeing has been systematically undermining its QC and compliance processes over a period of years or decades, and coasting on reputation and political clout to conceal that fact.

    Given that they are an aerospace company that asks people to trust them with their lives, and relies absolutely on a robust assurance of quality to make that possible, this would seem like an existential issue for the company. I can’t believe that either the chief engineer or Boeing would think it was OK for him to stand up and say that he wouldn’t expect to have knowledge of any of these potentially catastrophic issues but was perfectly comfortable signing off on it anyway. It wouldn’t be acceptable in my job, and nobody’s going to die if I get it wrong.

    Reply
    1. XXYY

      What’s happening at Boeing seems to be what’s happening in much of the country and indeed the world: Deliberately undermining and looting once-viable institutions and counting on past reputation to provide cover for what’s going on now.

      This works for a while, until it doesn’t, at which point there is not much left to save.

      Reply
  5. Tomonthebeach

    Fussing about FAA certifying a product of iffy quality being manufactured in an era where the used airliner lot is overflowing with low-hour bargains seem almost comical. Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal?

    Reply
  6. rowlf

    Good post Lambert. Thanks for all the research. To me aircraft stuff is relatively easy to research since there is so much engineering data to draw on, and well, it’s simpler than people stuff.

    So when I see others get aviation stories wrong I question what else they get wrong.

    You threw this one straight across the plate.

    Reply
  7. VietnamVet

    NC is indispensable. It documents reality from CalPERS to Boeing and the multitude of disasters that have hit this year; the Coronavirus Pandemic, Western Wildfires, the second 2020 Gulf Coast Hurricane, and the Pandemic Depression. The US government cannot regulate, mitigate, or even address them. It has collapsed. Add in the intentional sabotage of the US Postal Service, a toss-up election between two Losers; some date in late 2020 or 2021 could eclipse the disastrous start of the first Civil War on April 12, 1861. Without the restoration of government of the people, by the people, for the people, the Union cannot survive.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      A total American breakup would be an interesting historical experiment. It would allow far future generations to see if America is a timeless civilization like China . . . . or was a temporary construct like Rome.

      If America is a timeless civilization, then America might have its several centuries long Warring States Period and then a restoration of some kind of re-united existence . . . perhaps a United Empire of America, established by the strongest successor state left standing after the Warring States Period.

      Reply
      1. Synoia

        Living on the US west coast, as I do, I can conceive of nothing we need from the eastern United States.

        Having a monetary dis union would be difficult.

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          If you would find life under China better than life in the US now , then the eastern US has nothing you need.

          If you would find life under China worse than life in the US, then being part of the US ( in the same country as eastern US) may lend you protection from China making you into one of China’s New Overseas Tibets.

          It all depends what you want.

          Reply
        2. John Wright

          I thought about all the tools I own or have used that came from East Coast/Midwest manufacturers and wondered what % of the economy, in various states, was manufacturing.

          From https://www.nam.org/state-manufacturing-data/

          Various states, ranked from high manufacturing percentage to low.

          Manufacturers in Pennsylvania account for 11.89% of the total output in the state,
          Manufacturers in New Hampshire account for 11.63% of the total output in the state
          Manufacturers in Connecticut account for 11.23% of the total output in the state.
          Manufacturers in Maine account for 9.80% of the total output in the state
          Manufacturers in Massachusetts account for 9.39% of the total output in the state
          Manufacturers in New Jersey account for 8.43% of the total output in the state
          Manufacturers in New York account for 4.45% of the total output in the state

          Contrast these numbers with the West Coast:

          Manufacturers in Oregon account for 14.58% of the total output in the state
          Manufacturers in Washington account for 11.21% of the total output in the state
          Manufacturers in California account for 10.67% of the total output in the state,

          Note, the California % of manufacturing is exceeded by Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

          Maybe we don’t want to separate from the East Coast as many states are probably producing many items we need on the West Coast.

          But New York state, at 4.45% manufacturing, seems to have structured itself as “manufacturing is unimportant” state.

          Extrapolating New York to other states I’ve listed would have the other states shrinking their manufacturing base in half.

          I believe we on the West Coast need a lot from the East Coast.

          Reply
      2. VietnamVet

        2020 was the year the corporate run Western Empire (Boeing) lost the Mandate of Heaven.

        Watching Scandinavian Noir; a mono-linguist like 75% of Americans, I find it odd when Finns and Estonians instantly communicate with each other in English. “Okay” has made it into their native languages. This was result of the now fallen US dollar hegemony. North America will separate into Spanish, French and English speaking regions. Unlike the Chinese, there is not a universally understood written language here, to pass on culture to future generations that speak different languages. The warring could go incessantly like Europe of yore; except, English Speakers have exclusive use of nuclear weapons on the continent. They will enforce peace or annihilation.

        Reply
      3. albrt

        Or the states could stop warring once the divergent cultures have been separated, and the people in New England accept that they can’t control what people in the Confederacy want to do about abortion, and vice versa.

        Reply
      4. d

        not sure it would be all that. be more like the east coast (except Florida…maybe)….and the west coast combining into 1 ‘country’. the rest might be together. or not.
        and i am pretty sure it wont be a huge debacle. as they separate, there would be some food issues (seems California is a huge source of food…nationwide). course it would also take the largest economies with them (except maybe Texas).

        would be hard to fund the conservative nation. they just dont have that in their economies

        Reply
        1. tegnost

          It will be hard to feed that liberal nation, They don’t have that in their economies, and all those dams and their hydroelectrics are mostly located in “red” areas away from the coast. And how your precious amazon fulfillment center. Oh yes, those conservatives will come crawling, begging for mercy! /s

          Reply
          1. d

            i did mention that California is one of the largest source of food in the US right? and seems like one of the bastion of so called liberalism? so while the conservative states might be able to feed them selves, they may not be able to defend them selves, since they cant afford the military equipment? course lots of that is made in….California too.
            course i suppose you could also by from others (Russia, UK, France)

            Reply
            1. John Wright

              In terms of California’s agricultural production

              Per https://www.netstate.com/economy/ca_economy.htm

              “In terms of revenue generated, California’s top five agricultural products are dairy products, greenhouse and nursery products, grapes, almonds, and cattle and calves.”

              “California produces almost all of the country’s almonds, apricots, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, nectarines, olives, pistachios, prunes, and walnuts. It leads in the production of avocados, grapes, lemons, melons, peaches, plums, and strawberries. Only Florida produces more oranges.

              “The most important vegetable crops grown in the state are lettuce and tomatoes. Again, California leads the way. Broccoli and carrots rank second followed by asparagus, cauliflower, celery, garlic, mushrooms, onions, and peppers. Only Texas grows more cotton than California.”

              One can wonder how essential CA agriculture is to the nutrition of the rest of the nation, given that CA exports crops around the world and

              “California’s top five agricultural products are dairy products, greenhouse and nursery products, grapes, almonds, and cattle and calves.”

              Other states are dairy producers (Wisconsin) and other states produce a lot of corn/wheat (Iowa/Great Plains states) and potatoes (Idaho/Maine).

              How much CA grapes and almonds do Americans consume per year?

              While I am a CA native and long term resident, the belief in the “essential” food supply nature of CA to the rest of the union might lead to hubris.

              I suspect other states could take up the agricultural “slack” if pressed by a diminished CA agricultural product.

              Reply
  8. steve

    I often wonder how many bonuses were had by the bean counters that identified all those savings to be had dismissing QC staff.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Probably none of them. Probably the bonuses all went to the bold visionary executives who rewarded eachother’s boldness of visionariness and visionfulness of boldicitude in applying those bean counter discoveries.

      And if the bean counters even brought ” bonuses for bean-counters” up, the visionary leaders probably told them ” we can get ten interns who will PAY us to LET them do your job. Now shut up and get back to work.”

      Reply
  9. RMO

    Go ahead and call the 787 a plastic plane if you want. There’s no shame in that and most of my 1,600 hours flying has been in “plastic”. It’s carbon fiber reinforced plastic after all (a matrix of carbon fibers and epoxy plastic). Most of my plastic plane experience has been in all-fiberglass ships but the flying club I’m in does have two which are mostly carbon fiber and Kevlar.

    The FAA official saying that manufacturing defects are unprecedented is a bit worrying as there’s quite a long list of aircraft grounded over the years due to manufacturing defects. You would think they would be aware of that.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      In some ways, small aircraft builders have been well ahead of the game with composites over the major manufacturers – with good reason the likes of Boeing and Airbus were very cautious about making the transition away from aluminium. Designers like Burt Rutan did lots of the hard work back in the 1970’s in making all-composite frames safe and acceptable. It was the fact that those aircraft could log thousands of hours without problems that I think convinced many engineers that there would not be any hidden long term problems with using CF – if I recall, the biggest concern back in the early days was that the fibres or epoxy would simply not last long enough in an environment of constant use.

      Reply
      1. rowlf

        I would suggest the big concern for Boeing and Airbus was how to make a composite airframe that didn’t blow up when struck by lightning. If you don’t get the bonding correct you lose parts in a lightning strike. An early problem with carbon fiber in the 1970s was found on military aircraft with carbon strands getting loose and causing electrical shorts, as they can carry current well.

        Another problem with composite material in airliners is aluminum and rivets/Hi-Loks for repairing ramp rash will store for years, where the resins for repairing composites has a shelf life. Aluminum repairs don’t need a test sample made to see if the resin mix was up to spec.

        Reply
        1. rowlf

          I forgot to add that I don’t think Rutan thought about flying his designs through hail like an airliner. For a while there were concerns with the fiberglass-over-foam construction he favored flying through rain.

          Reply
          1. RMO

            Sailplane designers and manufacturers were first in using composites for certified, production aircraft. The ease of manufacturing a composite wing to the extremely close tolerances required for extensive laminar flow and the relatively good stability of the material which means the wing would keep that shape in service) made them indispensable for competitive performance. Carbon fiber first made inroads as a wing spar material in the 70s – a fiberglass wing could be made quite thin as the newer airfoil sections required and it would be strong enough but would be too flexible resulting in flutter problems. Carbon fiber was expensive but made it possible to make the wing stiff enough even when it was thin. Later as carbon fiber became more affordable and new designs came along it got used extensively all over. Nowadays there’s usually Kevlar around the cockpit (for crash safety) and an area (usually the tail fin) where only Kevlar or fiberglass is used so that the internally mounted antennas can function – carbon fiber structure blocks the radio waves and external antennas cause too much drag for a high performance glider.

            Reply
  10. baldski

    Preload, I was exposed to this in one of my earliest jobs in a southern shipyard. They were constructing a series of break-bulk cargo ships at the time. Along side the ways on each side were various large concrete blocks strapped in steel and their tonnage weights marked on their sides. I assumed they were used as test weights. They were, but their main purpose was something more. When the hull plates were welded to the hull, the inner bottoms with all their ribs were then put in place. Invariably, there were places where the gaps were too large to weld the ribs to the hull. So, the Hull fitters would tell the crane operator, “get a 15” and he would get a 15 ton block and gently lay it on the inner bottom to squeeze the ribs down to the hull so the welders could join them to the hull. These ships went down the ways, pre-stressed. It was a wonder they did not break up.

    Reply
  11. PlutoniumKun

    This is absolutely fascinating and a brilliant summary. I find it particularly interesting as I’m a bike nerd, and the discussion about the relative merits of switching from metal to carbon fibre has been going on for years among cyclists and the industry – with carbon fibre decisively winning. Bikes are obviously multiple orders of magnitude simpler vehicles than aircraft, but the basic problem of shifting materials is the same – how to make the most of the new material without killing anyone and keeping the costs down. Early carbon fibre bike frames were expensive and notoriously prone to failure, including catastrophic failures at key moments (like cycling downhill fast on a twisty mountain road). But the industry can now produce incredibly stiff and light frames and components at relatively low prices, and do it consistently enough that carbon fibre bikes are now entirely safe and robust, even when mishandled.

    But a key thing about carbon fibre frames – something even the lowliest bike mechanic in your local shop knows, is that correct torque when attaching components is key to ensuring they don’t fail (or to be precise, the frames are usually designed in such a way to minimise the need for correct torque in most situations). This is pretty basic stuff when it comes to putting in seat posts or headsets with CF components (and its one disadvantage of those frames – lots of stuff now needs bike shop tools rather than the ones you have lying around your garage). So to see that Boeing workers are overtorquing to ensure adequate fit and removing shims to be…. well, incredible. A level of construction below what you’d expect in your local bike shop. Thats not good.

    Reply
    1. josh

      Early frame designs that copied the traditional geometry were indeed disasters. Modern carbon frames continue to have voids and delaminations, but are over-engineered to compensate. They certainly have come a long way, but I don’t expect any of them to last more than 10 years or so. The whack it takes in the garage can turn into catastrophic failure years later. My bike stable is all 40 year old steel, and will likely last another 40 despite this idiot wrenching them.

      Carbon is a very unforgiving material to work with and does not suffer brutes or fools. Looks to me like Boeing increased the difficulty level while driving out the skills to match.

      Reply
      1. eg

        Mine’s 24 year-old aluminum — presumably it’s relatively immune to my mechanical incompetence? Not that I ride it all that much anymore …

        Reply
        1. MichaelSF

          Aluminum has a problem with fatigue — every time it load cycles it is one cycle closer to failure. If kept below a critical point steel’s fatigue life is pretty much forever (on our scales).

          Aluminum and titanium and composites are wonderful things and very cool but like everything the pluses come with minuses. Structures need to be designed to work with each material’s characteristics.

          Steel is very forgiving and much more suited to hobbyist construction projects.

          Reply
          1. RMO

            Conversely, the only bicycles I’ve personally seen fail in use have been steel… I ride a fourteen year old cyclocross bike which is a mix of carbon fiber and aluminum and a twenty-seven year old aluminum track bike (which has a steel fork)… I hope I’m not living too dangerously having all material bases except titanium and bamboo covered.

            Reply
  12. FFA

    Bicycle design does share with aircraft design the obsessive focus on reducing weight on structures that will be subjected to large forces. They are much more alike in this regard than mainstream car design.

    I am sure that, even at Boeing, the airframes were assembled with the specified torque applied to each bolt [0]. I think a better analogy would be if you were to try to fit a 30.9mm diameter seatpost to a frame that takes 31.6mm posts without using a shim.

    If you did the seatclamp up to the specified torque you would probably close the gap up enough to hold the seatpost in place in the work shop. But you would have a poorly secured seatpost and a damaged and weakened seat tube, dangerous when you took the bike out. I would expect a decent mechanic to notice that before inflicting permanent damage.

    [0] Unlike the privatised maintainers of the RAF’s fighters, who wrote several planes off.
    [1] Yes, both diameters are standards. :-(

    Reply
  13. FFA

    @Lambert I think that stress corrosion is a thing for metals rather than CFRP. Fatigue life may or may not be a limiting factor for the structure at that point, aluminium bodies do have lifetimes limited by fatigue but carbon (in the aircraft body) may be different.

    Modern airliners are designed right to the limits of the ultimate load that they are required to meet [1] and so there is no margin for variations in manufacturing beyond those the designers expected. Which is why those shims are a problem for the strength of the aircraft under the worst case loads.

    Quality Control depends on unified support for it from top to bottom in an organisation, the stories that keep coming out of Boeing are:
    (a) bad.
    (b) straight out of the good old days, when western manufacturers ignored the Japanese.

    Disclaimer: I’m an engineer, but not an aircraft engineer.

    [1] See for example the 777X which failed it’s test 1% below the limit rather than 1% over:
    https://www.seattletimes.com/business/boeing-aerospace/boeing-777xs-fuselage-split-dramatically-during-september-stress-test/

    Reply
  14. XXYY

    And Teal, who said he “signed off on the configuration of the airplane to include the MCAS function,” couldn’t recall any discussion of the decision to remove all mention of MCAS from the pilot flight manuals.

    This particular assertion seems likely to be untrue. The big value proposition of the 737 MAX was that it was “the same” as previous 737s, and (crucially) that pilots would not not need retraining in order to fly it. This was actually a requirement from at least one customer. So it’s very easy to believe that changes in the MAX flight manuals faced an uphill battle and were overwhelmingly likely to be omitted regardless of the factual situation.

    Of course the whole MCAS system was completely new in the MAX version of the plane. Inserting material about it in the flight manual would have raised legitimate questions about why pilots weren’t being trained on it, and undermined the whole pretence that the plane was “the same” as older 737s. I can imagine directives from very high in the company to scrutinize and sanitize the manuals so as not to enrage customers, trigger penalties, and endanger sales.

    Reply
  15. Matthew Saroff

    As many people have noted, McDonnell Douglas took over Boeing with Boeing’s money. (F%$# the Clintons for forcing that deal)

    Boeing was an air-plane manufacturer that managed to be a business, and McDonnell (not Douglas) was an investment bank masquerading as a defense contractor. (but I repeat myself)

    This is what happens when the finance guys take over.

    Bill Agee, a finance guy, took over the helm at Morrison Knudsen, and said this, “Now I’m going to show you how the financial guys do it.”

    He certainly did show them. MK went bankrupt.

    Reply
    1. d

      not sure that Clinton had all that much to do with it, other than approve the deal. and while i have no doubt that had all to do with the 737 debacle, and maybe the 787 too. but part of the current Boeing debacle is based on the standard American business management ideology. one destroy employees, out source and off shore as much as possible, cut as much costs as possible, then raise as much as possible for executive pay as possible, or and do what you can for share holders, but basically starve the business as much as you can

      Reply
      1. Matthew Saroff

        The Clinton admin was big on forcing defense contractor consolidation, particularly for McDonnell, because they were circling the drain.

        They twisted Boeing’s arm hard to make it happen.

        Reply

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