Boeing may be screwed

By Erik Dolson

Airplane manufacturer Boeing announced earlier this month that a safety committee had been formed on the board of directors after two crashes of the company’s 737 Max aircraft took 346 lives.

A safety committee! On the board! Thank god. Shareholders and passengers alike can fly much relieved.

I’d like to add a couple of other suggestions, distilled after talking to current and former Boeing employees over the last few months.

First, fire CEO and board chair Dennis Mullenburg. These tragedies occurred on his watch, and he lost all credibility while repeating the demonstrably false “safety is our top priority.” The crash of two 737 Max planes due to faulty software, faulty systems, and faulty processes made that claim absurd. Mullenburg is partly reponsible for the aggressive focus on profit that led to these tragedies.

Boeing exists to make a profit. Safety is central to that goal, but not the primary. Ask any employee who answers to a Boeing manager who himself or herself is under intense pressure to reduce costs on a regular basis.

The 737  Max was a bit of a kludge in the first place, an end run around regulations that would have required a completely new certification if Boeing had fielded an entirely new design. Recertification would have been expensive and caused delays, adding even more expense. So, Boeing told regulators and customers essentially that the 737 Max was “the plane you know and love, only better!”

But the company had installed new engines on the plane, and placed them farther forward. The engine pods cause lift when the nose of the plane is pointed up. The new location resulted in forces that pushed the nose up even further. This “divergent condition” can eventually cause a stall, and the airplane to fall out of the air.

Normally, a divergent condition is not allowed in passenger aircraft, which are supposed to return to a stable position if no forces are applied to the pilot’s controls. So Boeing came up with software that pushes the nose down when sensors indicate a stall is imminent.

It appears a sensor malfunctioned in the two planes that crashed. The airplane “thought” it was nearing a stall, and pushed the nose down. Pilots repeatedly tried to pull the nose up, but the planes were stronger and persisted, until they flew into the ground.

The central questions here are why didn’t Boeing catch this problem before people died, and can it be fixed?

I suggest that Boeing didn’t catch the problem because of the “culture” within the company. The end run around certification set the ball in motion. Constant pressure to cut costs and speed up development added momentum. So did the policy of not requiring and then informing airlines that pilots would need more training on the new systems.

These decisions were not the result of “safety is our number one priority.”

Can the planes be fixed? Certainly more sensors can be added (ONE!? Boeing allowed planes out the door with a single critical sensor!? There should have been three!). The software is being modified to give pilots more control.

The FAA in the United States may allow the 737 Max to fly again soon. After all, Boeing has a huge lobbying force in Washington D.C. Money matters.

However, transportation safety agencies in other countries may require that the plane not have a divergent condition at all, and/or that pilots be able to recover the plane from any flight situation with the software completely inoperable. Can the 737 Max do that?

Can the 737 Max recover from a near stall with the current engine design without software assistance? Can Boeing recover if only the FAA certifies the plane and it can’t fly in other countries? Would anyone fly on the plane?

The problems for the 737 Max go deeper than a software glitch, and the troubles at Boeing will not be fixed by adding a safety committee to the board of directors. At some point, the plane and the company may require a more significant change in design.

If not, I suggest that the entire Boeing board of directors and top management be on the plane as it goes through the more extreme flight tests. Then shareholders and passengers alike would be assured that the planes are as safe as they can be.

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About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon

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