The Boeing 737 MAX 8 debacle

Boeing Commercial Airplanes Corporation of America is the unrivalled leader in the world civil aviation industry. Boeing remains the world’s largest builder of jumbo jets (wide-body aircraft).

Since the Boeing 747 entered service in 1968, it has remained the world’s most popular jumbo jet even after Airbus, the multinational European aviation firm launched the A-380 super-jumbo jet in 2005.

A total of 1, 548 units of Boeing 747 have been built so far. There are only 234 units of the Airbus A-380 in service.

McDonnell Douglas entered the wide-body aircraft market with the controversial DC-10, while Lockheed Corporation, another American firm, entered the same market with its L-1011 tri-star which was a carbon copy of DC-10.  The L-1011 did not have the notorious safety record of the DC-10, but it was never a popular long-haul airliner. It simply faded away just like the DC-10.

In the short haul, single aisles aircraft market, Boeing is also the world’s undisputed leader. The Boeing 737 is the world’s most popular airliner in that market. Since it entered service on April 9, 1967, a total of 10, 444 units have been built.

A company with the safety and products popularity records of Boeing could therefore be mistaken as infallible.  However, two incidents in the last four months have proved that the men at Boeing are prone to mistakes.

The 737 has an enviable safety record. Unfortunately, the crashes on October 29, 2018, of Indonesia’s Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines’ flight 302 on Sunday, March 10, 2019, have thrown a big question mark on the safety record of the world’s most popular airliner.

Both flights were operated by Max-8, Boeing’s highly automated version of the 737. The crash of Lion Air’s flight 610 claimed the lives of 189 passengers and crew. That is the highest casualty in a 737 crash.

The circumstances of the crash of flight 610 have indicted everyone from Boeing to the managers of Lion Air.

Investigators wonder why Boeing introduced such sophisticated safety devices as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) into the Max-8 model without training pilots on how to respond to faulty angle of attack (AoA) reading by sensors feeding the system with data on airflow pattern in relation to the aircraft wings.

The MCAS is designed to nudge the nose of the aircraft when necessary to prevent it from stalling and crashing. It stops the aircraft from pointing upwards at too high an angle where it could lose its lift.  However, in the event of faulty readings from the AoA sensors the system nudges the nose of the aircraft against the command of the pilot and it could lead to calamity.

Ironically, Boeing, having been aware of the danger of faulty AoA readings by the sensors, designed software that alerts the pilot when the AoA reading is faulty. However, due apparently to financial considerations, installation of the warning alert software is optional and attracts additional cost from airlines. Consequently, the Lion Air Max-8 that operated the fatal flight 610 was not equipped with the essential AoA faulty reading alert software.

Investigators of the cause of the crash of Flight 610 contend that the AoA sensors in the aircraft “disagreed” (sent contradictory readings) by 20 degrees as the aircraft was taxing for take-off. When the aircraft was airborne the MCAS responding to faulty AoA readings nudged the nose of the plane as the pilot ordered a steep climb. Flight 610 pilot reportedly countered the disastrous command from the errant MCAS 24 times before the plane plunged into Java sea some 12 minutes after take-off.

Analysts are equally critical of the decision of the managers of Lion Air to field the aircraft for operations after the crew that flew the plane on October 28 had a similar encounter with the errant MCAS. The pilot saved the situation by turning off the device.

Experts contend that if Boeing had made installation of the faulty AoA reading alert software mandatory, the crew of flight 610 would have known that the MCAS was delinquently acting on faulty AoA readings. Besides, if Boeing had trained pilots of Max-8 series on the new device, the crash would have been averted. 

Lion Air managers may be blamed for fielding an aircraft with questionable airworthiness after technicians replaced the errant sensors that almost crashed the plane on October 28.

Boeing is probably the biggest culprit in what is now the biggest dent on the enviable safety record of the 737 series.  While many airlines installed the optional warning alert software, others ignored it because the manufacturer did not make it mandatory.

The outcome of investigations into Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash that killed 157 people from 30 countries including Nigeria would be critical in determining Boeing’s culpability.

Circumstances leading to the crash of flight 302 are considered to be similar to that of flight 610. It is almost certain that the Ethiopian Airlines plane was not equipped with what has now become mandatory safety alert software.

If that is eventually established and it turns out that the electronic error that plunged flight 610 into the Java Sea also brought down flight 302 then the men at Boeing would have to explain to the world why the  installation of a warning alert device in a popular airliner was declared optional and at extra cost.

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