A few days ago we published a blog post with the title "FAA Orders Grounding of Boeing 737 Max-Aircraft". In that post we speculated that, based on information available in the news media, the crashes of both Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 may have involved a failure in the design of the flight control system installed in Boeing's 737 Max 8 aircraft. Since our post, we have learned that other sources indicate that we were on track with our suspicions.
To recap our previous post, we noted that:
- On the morning of 29 October 2018, a Boeing 737 Max 8 operating as Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea 12 minutes after departing Jakarta. In the minutes prior to the crash, the pilot had requested an emergency return to Jakarta due to control problems. According to witnesses on a nearby drilling platform, the aircraft impacted at a severe "nose down" angle.
- On 10 March 2019 a Boeing 737 Max 8, essentially identical to the aircraft lost by Lion Air, was operating as Ethiopian Air Lines Flight 302. Within minutes of its departure, the pilot requested an emergency return its departure airport. The aircraft crashed about 40 miles south of the airport. Witnesses on the ground stated that this aircraft crashed in an extreme nose down angle.
In a radical departure of its usual procedure, the FAA at first declined to order an immediate grounding of all commercial operations involving 737 Max-series aircraft. Following international criticism, the FAA reversed its position and grounded all US-based 737 Max aircraft. One day later reports surfaced that, as far back as 2015, the FAA had allowed Boeing to conduct most of the mandatory safety testing of the model's flight control system.
After the national news media broke the FAA certification story, on March 17th the Seattle Times published "Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing, FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system." In that story the Times cited confidential sources within both Boeing and the FAA as stating that Boeing's initial "System Safety Analysis" of the 737 Max 8's flight control system, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS):
- Severely underestimated the power of the MCAS to swivel the aircraft's horizontal tail section in order to push the aircraft's nose downward if the MCAS sensed the aircraft was entering a stall. This is a standard flight maneuver, whether performed by a human pilot or by an automated flight control. However, after the aircraft entered service, it was discovered that the MCAS could move the tail section more than four time farther than stated in the safety analysis.
- Did not take into consideration how quickly the MCAS would "reset" itself after the human pilot attempted to "override" the MCAS's "nose down" maneuver after incorrectly detected an approaching stall.
- The MCAS was designed to receive its data input from a single sensor and there was no provision for "redundancy" (backup) of a second sensor should a problem occur in its primary system.
- Boeing itself assessed the consequences of a system failure as "hazardous" rather than the more-likely "catastrophic." In retrospect, Boeing appears to have been overly-optimistic.
Why the certification may have been premature
Regardless of the final reports' conclusions regarding the causes of both aircraft crashes, we find it quite disturbing that senior FAA officials pressured their safety engineers to accept the results of Boeing's testing rather than conducting their own tests on this critical flight system. On the agency's website, the FAA states that its "vision" is "… to reach the next level of safety, efficiency, environmental responsibility and global leadership. We are accountable to the American public and our stakeholders." It appears that, in the case of the Boeing Max, the agency failed to meet that vision. As to why, we offer one possible factor.
At the time the 737 Max series was undergoing certification Boeing was "feeling the heat" from its competitor in the international aircraft market, Airbus. Whether economic pressure "felt" by Boeing was also, somehow, also "felt" at the FAA is yet to be decided.
Was the 737 Max 8 defective?
As we have stated time and again, we are not accusing Boeing, the FAA or anyone else of deliberately endangering or misleading the public. We are simply stating that, when it comes to the political influence of multinational corporations versus that of the citizens, our version of an old saying seems to hold true: "Money talks and everyone else walks, usually off the working end of the gangplank."
If subsequent investigations find that Boeing "shipped" a defective product (the 737 Max 8), the company is facing a liability nightmare. If those investigations show that Boeing knew, or should have known, that its MCAS contained serious design flaws (e.g. relying on a single sensor with no backup), it will be unable to escape its liability problem. When you consider the potential costs of a major recall to fix a few thousand aircraft, plus the revenue lost by both domestic and international air carriers while their aircraft are sitting on the ground, the economic impact will be measured in billions of dollars.
And all because someone took a shortcut.