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737 Max

Damning New 737 MAX Exposé: “This Isn’t Just a Computer Bug – it’s a Scandal”

Damning New 737 MAX Exposé: “This Isn’t Just a Computer Bug – it’s a Scandal”
Jeff Edwards

A new report by Vox sheds new light on the competitive pressures that helped lead to twin air disasters and the grounding of nearly every Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on the planet. The team of investigative reporters asserts that the tragedies were rooted in the airline industry’s clamor for the next generation of larger, more fuel-efficient power plants for future passenger jets.

Much of the focus surrounding safety concerns with the now-grounded Boeing 737 MAX has revolved around the aircraft’s computer-automated Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), but a new report from Vox finds that the MAX’s new, larger engines may be the root cause of the plane’s spotty safety record. The team of investigative reporters concluded that it was the major redesign required to accommodate the larger power plant that caused the MAX to become uncomfortably reliant on the MCAS in the first place.

Because the engines on the MAX planes were relocated to allow for the much larger jet engine profiles, the planes are said to have developed an unfortunate side effect of now being at increased risk of stalling during a rapid ascent. The MCAS was designed, in part, to recognize these conditions and automatically force the plane’s nose down preventing a potentially catastrophic stall.

Investigations into the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 are centered on the possibility that faulty sensors may have triggered the MCAS to incorrectly identify a stall and automatically force the nose down in response. In both cases, it appears that flight crews were unable to regain control of their aircraft before tragedy struck.

The explosive new report asserts that Boeing intentionally undersold the MAX family of aircraft’s reliance of the MCAS system in order to give the appearance that flight crews familiar with older generations of 737 planes would need little or no additional training to begin flying the MAX. According to the investigative team, pilots were, in some cases, not even aware that the new MCAS feature existed on the planes they were flying.

“This isn’t just a computer bug. It’s a scandal,” the Vox piece concludes.  “At first, the story Boeing tried to tell was that it was a software problem; the automated stall-prevention system was malfunctioning, the company said. And the accident reports seem to support this statement. But there’s a much deeper and scandal-ridden story about how this plane got to market, and it starts with Boeing’s fierce rivalry with Airbus — and their race to put a new engine in their planes.”

This isn’t the first indication that Boeing’s rush to beat Airbus to market may have contributed to the 737 MAX program’s current woes. A number of current and former Boeing workers have publicly supported this assessment. Boeing officials have dismissed these allegations outright, noting that the aviation giant has a long history of placing safety above all else.

“Our entire team is devoted to the quality and safety of the aircraft we design, produce and support,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg wrote in a March 18th statement. “I’ve dedicated my entire career to Boeing, working shoulder to shoulder with our amazing people and customers for more than three decades, and I personally share their deep sense of commitment. Recently, I spent time with our team members at our 737 production facility in Renton, Wash., and once again saw firsthand the pride our people feel in their work and the pain we’re all experiencing in light of these tragedies. The importance of our work demands the utmost integrity and excellence—that’s what I see in our team, and we’ll never rest in pursuit of it.”

This new report, however, hints that Boeing may have intentionally undersold major design changes and a complete reworking of the flight control systems in an effort to better market the next generation of passenger planes.

Or as the Vox investigation puts it, “This problem started with a company’s race to compete with its rival that pushed them to pretend like their plane behaved just like its old one – even when it didn’t.”

[Image Source: Wikimedia]

View Comments (26)

26 Comments

  1. BF263533

    April 15, 2019 at 10:25 pm

    President Trump suggested rebranding the 737 MAX. Maybe call it the “Mullenburg”

  2. seigex

    April 15, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    What’s so explosive about things that have been known for a while? Plus it’s Vox.

  3. Sydneyberlin

    April 16, 2019 at 3:23 pm

    As ever so often, great easy to understand summary from VOX. And yes, “scandal” is the right word here!

  4. superbobbay

    April 17, 2019 at 4:26 am

    Much hyperbole and borderline clickbait. The MAX is safe and will fly again. Lion Air: Stab Trim Cutout switches. Ethiopian Air: Reduce throttles. Both disasters were that close to being saved. With the software upgrades, a pilot won’t even encounter either situation anymore.

  5. BMGRAHAM

    April 17, 2019 at 4:36 am

    As usual there’s always someone ready to go above and beyond in terms of criticism. What good does it do attaching labels like Scandal to this horrible situation?

  6. feckman

    April 17, 2019 at 5:20 am

    Basically a video rehash of a better, more in-depth and more informative article from the New York Times published February 3rd, 2019 — more than a month before the Ethiopian Airlines crash:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/03/world/asia/lion-air-plane-crash-pilots.html

  7. chrisboote

    April 17, 2019 at 5:23 am

    Don’t forget this is the same software team responsible for the FADEC software that killed so many in Chinooks in the ’90s

  8. mbgaskins

    April 17, 2019 at 5:47 am

    Again. Nothing here. Just “sensational” journalism with no facts.

    If you listen to qualified people who know what is going on and what Happened it was simply cheap airlines with inadequate training and Inexperienced pilots that ultimately was the cause.

  9. KRSW

    April 17, 2019 at 5:50 am

    The biggest ‘scandal’ that I’m seeing out of all of this, besides how ham-fisted this whole MCAS system has been designed and implemented, is that after all is said and done, there STILL won’t be a circuit breaker to kill MCAS in the cockpit NOR is there a big warning message that comes up when MCAS activates. If either of these had been present, the Ethiopian flight would have been salvageable.

    Yes, they’re coming out with new software, which should be done, BUT the fact remains, if you want to turn off MCAS, you’re losing electric stabilizer trim.

  10. Superbear

    April 17, 2019 at 5:59 am

    Stopped reading when I saw VOX.

  11. squiddy

    April 17, 2019 at 6:16 am

    Awesome – take the usually skewed reporting from Vox and then just quote the parts that support your contention.

    The quality of the stories on this site would have to improve to rise to the level of “click-bait.”

    I *am* curious as to why the root cause found in the Lion air crash didn’t result in a earlier revision to emergency procedures and/or software fix? How often do these AOA sensors malfunction? Do they fail often enough that the single AOA sensor offering was an unacceptable compromise? Or were the sensors themselves defective?

    I don’t think it was the “rush to market” that was a “scandal” – but Boeing’s reaction after the first incident might be.

  12. airish

    April 17, 2019 at 6:50 am

    Vox.com is hardly a credible source. It specializes in dumbed down leftist “explainers” for millennials.

  13. longtimeobserver

    April 17, 2019 at 7:01 am

    Thanks for saving us from what would otherwise have been a wasted Vox-click.

  14. ckfred

    April 17, 2019 at 7:11 am

    I talked to a friend of mine who is a 737 captain and has been checked out in the MAX in his recurring training.

    He is not much for Donald Trump’s fake news, but the media’s reporting on the MAX qualifies.

    First, in one of the crashes, it appears that the probe connected to the MCAS broke off, probably due to a bird strike. There is a counter-weight inside that, with the probe gone, dropped. This would have caused the MCAS to discern that the plane was pitching up and stalling.

    Now, does Boeing need to strengthen the probe, to insure another bird strike does not cause it to break? Of course.

    Second, it appears that one of the flight crews turned off the MCAS, and then turned it back on. If a pilot disables a faulty system, he should never turn it back on.

    Why did he turn it back on? It appears that the control column was pulled back all the way, and that trim adjustment was attempted. You can’t adjust trim, if the column is pushed forward or pulled back all the way. The horizontal stabilizer is fully deflected. The pilot must ease forward or back slightly, in order to adjust the trim.

    Finally, one of the planes crashed with its engines at full power. Why?

    My friend told that, in flying the 737 for 10 years, he might have had the engines at full power only a few times, probably departing Orange County. Even then, a pilot throttles back from take-off power after gaining about 1000 feet of altitude.

    Both planes had gained more altitude and should have been in a climb setting for thrust.

    One other point. In one of the crashes, the first officer had only 200 hours of flight time. No, not 200 hours in the 737. No, not 200 hours with the carrier. He had only 200 hours of flight time.

    No one should be allowed to fly a commercial aircraft of any size with only 200 hours in the cockpit. My friend got his pilot’s license at age 17. But he didn’t get his rating to fly passenger aircraft until age 22, after graduating from college with a degree in aviation tech and a far more than 200 hours in the cockpit.

  15. MrGood

    April 17, 2019 at 7:25 am

    But Boeing making poor/cheap quality aircraft is nothing new, and all the more to Airbus to start capitalizing on. Both probably deserve such at this point.

  16. BC Shelby

    April 17, 2019 at 11:33 am

    No other commercial aircraft design has been pushed as far beyond it’s original concept like the 737 has. It’s primary mission a half century ago was a short haul aircraft intended to bring jet service to small city airports with short runways which didn’t have loading bridges or extensive ground handling equipment. Hence, the low ground stance which allowed for a self contained boarding stair and cargo compartments that are easy to reach by ramp agents standing on the tarmac (the Douglas DC-9 and BAC One Eleven also sat low to the ground for similar reasons, however, had their engines mounted higher under the tail). With the older low bypass JT-8 engines this wasn’t much of an issue as they had a narrow diameter and fit nicely under the wing at the aeroplane’s centre of gravity.

    With both the “advanced” and now Max variants, the higher bypass engines, which had a larger diameter intake, needed to be placed more forward of the wing and slightly up. This moved them ahead of the aircraft’s centre of gravity (the CFM-56 engines also required the bottom of the forward nacelle to be “flattened” rather than circular). This was done to accommodate the low ground clearance afforded by the stubby undercarriage that was retained (which really is no longer necessary as smaller regional jets have taken over most of the 737’s original small city markets and more airports, even some small ones, today have loading bridges), thus introducing the unwanted “pitch up” tendency (though not as pronounced in the older advanced series as it is in the Max version). True lengthening the undercarriage would have meant modifications to the wing and wing box and some contend this would make it an entirely new aircraft requiring training on the type rather than lulling crews into the belief it is just like it’s predecessors. This idea came back to bite them last century when differences in instrumentation and power generation systems between the -300 and -400 were cited as being responsible in part for the British Midlands crash.

    Boeing has been known to “gamble” before on an all new design when a market or technological shift was on the horizon. The 707 and 747 were tremendous risks at the time, yet both aircraft became veritable icons and success stories leaving Boeing’s competitors, Douglas and Convair in the “jet wash” so to say (Lockheed never entered the commercial jet fray until the mid 60s with their entry in the US SST competition and later the L-1011). Boeing should have commenced on development of the 797 alongside the 787 as there is some commonality between the types (particularly in the use of lighter composites). Unfortunately instead of taking the risk on what likely would be a more advanced product to another rehash of the 737, they let the bean counters at the airlines call the shots (in particular, Southwest which operates an all 737 fleet and is the company’s largest 737 customer).

    Since the late 1950s, Boeing used to be the driving force in the air travel market. Now it is letting the airlines determine what it should produce The same airline industry that went as nuts as a kid in candy store after deregulation and Open Skies, over expanding their route systems, acquiring large fleets on credit, and overbooking flights on purpose. This is also an industry that when the situation started to go downhill, began swallowing up their competitors and resorted to devastating fare wars that began to cripple it before 9/11.

    I would love a new car that is simple, easy to maintain, easy to fix when something goes wrong, and has a little style as they did 50+ years ago, but no car company today is going to build it. The few “Retro” designs on the road have still use the latest up to date technology and computerisation which make them impossible to maintain work on yourself.

    Boeing should have taken a similar stand instead of continue to modify the 737 concept even further. The Max is little more than a “stopgap” to appease the airline accountants and create sales. What this says is that Boeing was more than just “concerned” about their competitor from across the pond, they were actually worried about falling behind, something the company never really experienced from it’s competition since the beginning of the commercial jet age (before then Douglas was on top with their DC-4 DC-6 and DC-7, followed by Lockheed with the L-749/1049, Boeing pretty much played third fiddle only offering the model 377).

    In the case of the 737 Max, I feel they stumbled and now are at least four to five years behind Airbus in development of a new technology, efficient single aisle twin as the 797 is not expected to enter service until 2023 – 2024 while its competitor, the A-321 Neo is already being delivered to airlines. We may see another “changing of the guard” so to say as occurred 60 years ago.

  17. N1120A

    April 17, 2019 at 11:40 am

    1) The ET FO had more than 250 hours, as he wouldn’t have been able to obtain a commercial license without that. And that was his PIC time, which means he would have had more. He was junior, but there are airline pilots all over the world who get into big jets at that number.

    2) Departures from ADD are not standard. ADD’s density altitude is substantial on any day, and higher thrust settings are required for any take off. It can be argued, probably correctly, that a minor power reduction would have brought the nose down and stopped the system from thinking the AOA was about to be exceeded, but during the state they were in – and dealing with it as a runaway trim situation, as trained by ET and Boeing – it is easy to see why they wouldn’t have been able to compute that with their workload and the general training people obtain in operating from ADD.

  18. Sasdes

    April 17, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    Lots of good comments here but a bit miffed at the commenter who said this situation wasn’t a scandal. I’m going to guess that the 300 or so families of the persons who died in the two 737 Max crashes are going to heavily disagree with that statement. In the year 2019, airplanes do not fall out of the sky. I think it is a scandal that Boeing is essentially self regulating because the FAA does not have the requisite trained personnel to conduct the appropriate inspections on these planes as reported on March 28 by Business Insider, not Vox. If true, it is a scandal that the additional safeties and training that these pilots were required were considered expensive extras. Those who think that this article is bollocks because it was reported by Vox as opposed to their outlet of choice (who I’m sure also reported something similar), are free to fly these planes. I, for one, refuse to board one until there is satisfactory evidence to the flying public that they are safe to fly. I do not need to get to Chicago that urgently.

  19. jmpaul

    April 17, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    There is one legacy feature we all suffer with on the “Retro” 737 series, the skinny cabin and seats that date from the skinny 1960s passengers during those early short flights. Airbus sells their modern competing A320 series with its 7″ wider cabin interior to match modern needs. Let’s hope Boeing gets to work ASAP on a truly modern narrow body offering. My recent coast to coast flight on AA’s 321 reminded me how important this difference is.

  20. wijnands

    April 17, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    I’m baffled how many people here are quick to dismiss two crashes and blame pilots for it.

    Personally.. I’m not flying one of these when I can possibly avoid it, even when they are allowed in the air again.

  21. Freebird

    April 17, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    Same here. If there is a chance my future flight might be on a 737 Max, then no way, Jose! – and my business takes a walk to a different airline. This isn’t like the early battery issues of the 787, this is the worst case scenario.

    Of course Boeing’s handling of the pilot training on the Max model and the way cost cutting led to the unnecessary deaths of over 300 people fits the term “scandal”.

    But hey, do get on these if your political views cloud how you see the truth.

  22. MikeDVisa

    April 17, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    I would like start out by asking a simple question; Why hasn’t a “Max” in the US, Canada, EU or Australia crashed? I find the non-pilot comments somewhat amazing. While I agree that there could have been a better training criteria and documentation, Boeing as well as the Airbus have been developing planes for years to be flown by pilots that don’t have the extraordinary military training and expertise “flying” that the military folks have. The future of commercial aviation is pilots that got their flying hours in other ways and are better at operating computers and knowing systems rather than knowing how to fly an airplane, I am lucky that I have my 9 million miles flying when we had many of the military pilots. And like others on this thread, I look forward to flying on a “Max” on one of my future golf trips.

  23. FromtheRight

    April 20, 2019 at 5:02 am

    Southwest Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly told the Dallas Business Journal that the MAX is “a very good airplane” and that SW will be purchasing “hundreds” more.

  24. RUAMKZ

    April 20, 2019 at 7:59 am

    Do they mean Fox(as in the TV network)?…..or Vox(the famous music equipment company, than now makes “black boxes” for planes)?

  25. Richard Mason

    April 21, 2019 at 1:29 am

    When you have a fault with any of the automated systems are you not able to switch these all off and fly manually?
    If thats not the case and you totally rely on the automated systems then the days of no human pilots is getting much closer?

  26. tenn_ace

    April 21, 2019 at 4:06 pm

    It wasn’t the first time ( and I’m afraid not the last) when the bottom line of a US publicly traded company is put in front of the safety of consumers. And when an oversight is being currently undermined (always under great pretences), the risk will increase.

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