The NY Times has come out with a hit piece on Boeing and the ill-fated Boeing 737 MAX. Yet to CM, the problem seems more an Audi TT or Mercedes A-Class than a deliberate case of manufacturing flaw that was the Ford Pinto.
Recall that Ford deliberately placed the fuel tank to save money, knowing that it could spontaneously combust if hit from the rear. Yet the financial boffins deduced that the cost of making the move to a safer position would not be worth the risks of such a scenario playing out. Boeing never designed the 737 MAX to have inherent instability. The computer modelling power now is such that the most extreme scenarios would have passed muster. The FAA felt confident that the plane was airworthy to approve it.
Audi had an issue in 2000 with the TT. The sleek 2-door sports car was built off the VW Golf platform. However, the car was found to be prone to uncontrolled spins which killed 5 drivers. Audi was forced to install a spoiler and more sophisticated driver aids (software) to prevent the problem from occurring again. Same for the Mercedes Benz A-Class which failed the elk test conducted by a Finnish motoring magazine in 1997. It flipped when trying to avoid a dummy elk on a test track. This forced Mercedes back to the design room to install stability software to overcome the problem and restore its reputation for safety.
This is essentially what has happened at Boeing. While the press wishes to point to evil doings, the reality is that poor internal communication on such a big project was to blame, not willful negligence. Planes are pushed well beyond what they would ever be likely to encounter in real life. Take the 787’s wing flex test at 30% more than the plane would ever encounter while flying in the worst conditions.
It makes absolutely no sense for Boeing to take such massive risks on the 737 MAX, its #1 selling aircraft, by making it in such a way that it had a high propensity to crash.
The Boeing 737-400 series had inert fuel tank issues where near empty scenarios could cause the vapor to ignite in the centre tank that could lead to a deadly explosion. Several did. Some in the air. Some on the tarmac. These planes weren’t grounded. World aviation authorities, like Australia, issued advisories on how to mitigate the risk of it happening.
The 737 also had a rudder hard-over fault which led to several crashes. The design flaws were rectified when one pilot was able to recover the near-death experience. It was a faulty rudder actuator which could stick under certain temperatures.
The list of 787 airworthiness directives (from fire issues, wings, flight controls to landing gear) stands at 52. FIFTY-TWO. Sure a 787 has not crashed yet but where have the authorities been trying to ground the type until it has no ailments at all? Do they need a crash to rally into action? Or do they look at the issue on its individual merits? The 737 can fly without this AOA safely, which is why the FAA still allows its operation.
Having been a former aerospace analyst, this is the first time in a very long time CM can remember that a virtual global ban was put on any aircraft type. When Qantas flight QF32 (an Airbus A380) had an uncontained engine failure which ruptured the wing tanks and severing hydraulics, the airlines grounded their own planes as a safety measure, not the authorities. Singapore Airlines suspended its A380 flights for one day before resuming operations.
When AA587 crashed in Queens after the tail and engines sheared off, Airbus A300s weren’t summarily grounded. When AF447 crashed into the ocean off the coast of Brazil, A330s weren’t grounded as a precaution. It was pilots not paying attention to basics protocols, becoming overreliant on systems.
Ultimately the market will decide on the 737MAX. The plane has a 4,000+ unit backlog. Even if airlines wanted to change to A320neos, the switching costs would be prohibitively expensive in terms of pilot certification, maintenance and joining the end of an equally long queue. The order book is unlikely to suffer widespread cancellations.
Airlines run on razor-thin profit margins and the extra efficiency the MAX will offer over the existing fleet is why airlines want them now. The new LEAP-X engine technology is a once in 50-year event. The engines offer more power, 15% better fuel economy and lower emissions. The components are now ceramic matrix composites (CMC) which allows the engine to burn hotter and increase performance without suffering extra fuel burn. Nippon Carbon is the sole supplier of this magic material.
There has undoubtedly been a breakdown in communication with the FAA and Boeing. This engineering flaw can be safely encountered by software. While the NY Times has tried to over-exaggerate the fault in design, the reality is that all aircraft have engineering limitations. The 737 is a 50 years old airframe with over 1 billion passenger miles.
CM has stated many times that pilots have become too reliant on safety systems. AF 447 was a perfect case in point. When these glass cockpits with all manner of electronic trickery go wrong, pilots only need first principles to fly.
CM is sure that Boeing will recover from this incident and 737 MAX deliveries will continue as they had. The press just seems too eager for click bait, not understanding the complexities of developing new aircraft.