Problem with Boeing’s 737 Max 8 Series Has Broad Implications

Michael O'Connell, Staff Writer

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At any given moment more than half a million people are flying through the air on one of the thousands of scheduled passenger flights.  Nonetheless, flying continues to mystify and incite fear in many. Such is the cause of the recent global grounding, and resounding concern with Boeing’s 737 Max 8 series.  A series of unfortunate, and eerily similar accidents involving brand new 737 Max 8 aircraft, in which the aircrafts crashed soon after takeoff, obliterating the airframe and leaving no

The Boeing company has found itself embroiled in a safety controversy following two strikingly similar crashes involving its 737 Max aircraft series.  Though consumers are quick to judge the safety of products for themselves, regulating agencies often play a reassuring role. However, passengers have found an uncommon ally in most international aviation regulators, as they too have called, for the immediate grounding of the 737 Max airframe.

An unfortunate timeline of events has led to this point.  Initially, the launch of the 737 Max Series proved to be an exciting update to a popular aircraft.  At the start of 2019, Boeing had over 5,000 737 Max aircraft orders, demonstrating how intriguing the promises of increased efficiency and passenger comfort are to airlines.  In fact, airlines had up until recently all but positive reviews for the new aircraft that had delivered on Boeing’s promises. But what went wrong?

Two fateful flights, one in Indonesia and one in Ethiopia, have effectively destroyed any appreciation for the 737 Max series.  It is important to recognize that accidents involving the same aircraft type—even ones that occur close in time to each other—do not typically result in an international grounding.  For example, between September and October 2005, two different Boeing 737-200 accidents, each with no survivors, did not result in any regulatory intervention. However, the fatal crashes of Lion Air flight 610 in October 2018, and that of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 earlier this year catalyzed an unprecedented response.  

Even in the early hours of the investigation into the cause of Ethiopian 302’s demise, immediate and concerning connections were drawn to that of the Lion Air crash five months prior.  Both jets crashed soon after takeoff, in both cases, the pilots reported control issues and asked to return to the airport, and in both cases, it was clear the pilots had no control by the time of impact.

Reporting and uncovered internal commutations at Boeing point to the 737 Max’s unique MCAS sensory software as key to the chain of events that brought the two aircraft down.  MCAS is an acronym for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. The system, though likely not malfunctioning, may intervene in flight operations in a way unfamiliar to pilots.  The MCAS was installed into the 737MAX series as a way for the aircraft to proactively monitor its relative pitch. Heavier and more forwardly placed engines caused the MAX series to more easily pitch upwards.  At low speeds, such dynamics (upward pitch, with slowing airspeed), can induce a stall.

In development, Boeing became familiar with the way flight properties had changed.  Boeing planned that pilots who were rated to fly the most recent “non-MAX” series of 737 would not need any significant further training with the new aircraft type.  Most generally, MCAS was a system put in place to help ensure that pilots felt the 737MAX flew like previous iterations of the aircraft.

Undoubtedly, Boeing’s intentions were good ones, but their protocol for informing airlines on changes made to the 737MAX has been met with nearly universal criticism.  Following the October Lion Air crash, Boeing issued warnings about the MCAS, which caught airlines by surprise. Boeing had made no mention of the MCAS in the comprehensive flight guidebook provided to airline engineers and technicians.  Most importantly, as a result, pilots were unaware of the system, nor how to anticipate its effects. Furthermore, Boeing was confident in the system, which was programmed to trigger an intervention when it was safety critical.

It would appear that the Achilles heel of the otherwise safe and successful launch of the 737MAX was faulty sensors and a failure to disclose seemingly mundane changes to aircraft software.  Early reports indicated that sensory equipment on the Lion Air was misreporting, and may have triggered the MCAS intervention that pilots were unfamiliar with.

Boeing’s scandal has implications in fields other than aviation engineering.  Though we marvel at the future of technology, we often forget the long and perhaps costly process of realizing our dreams of the future.  As automation and computer software moves to burden certain responsibilities of man, new responsibilities must be immediately realized. Boeing’s unfortunate overconfidence in their automaton has cost them money, damaged the reputations of airlines, and left hundreds dead.

Most immediately Boeing is working on a software patch to present to the FAA.  Though the aircraft will remain one of the safest, and most efficient in the sky, this recent scandal will have almost certainly stained the reputation of the aircraft, both in the eyes of travelers and of airline executives too. Going forward Boeing’s mistake will be a lesson in manufacturing transparency, and the dangers of automation for the sake of automation.

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