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Current News Op-ed: Boeing 737 MAX

Boeing is the largest aerospace company in the world. It’s the owner of one of the best selling commercial jets of all time, the Boeing 737. The 737 has been popular since 1967, and has gone through many different models over its lifetime. The latest model, the 737 Max, has stirred up quite a lot of trouble for the company. During the design of the plane, Boeing opted to keep most of the aircraft the same as the previous model, rather than building an entirely new airplane. Compared to the previous model–the 737 Next Gen–the biggest change was the new fuel-efficient engines. The engines changed the weight and balance of the plane and had a side effect that the 737NG didn’t; during slow flight at high angles of attack, the nose would tend to pitch up further, which could induce a dangerous stall. To compensate for this effect, a software called the Maneuvering Control Augmentation System (MCAS) would automatically pitch the nose down without pilot input so that the plane flew just like the 737NG in these conditions. It was this software that was deemed suspicious when two almost identical 737 Max fatal crashes happened within five months of each other, Lion Air flight 610, and Ethiopian airlines flight 302. These accidents resulted in the grounding of every 737 Max around the world. Looking closer at these events begs the question: how could the highly regulated aircraft industry allow for the 737 Max to remain carrying passengers until after two deadly crashes occurred?

From Boeing’s perspective, the crashes can be linked directly to their company culture and leadership. The 737 Max’s creation began due to financial pressure and competition from competing aircraft manufacturers, grossly impacting the safety procedures and transparency in the hopes of getting approved by regulators more quickly. One of the key design decisions was to keep the same airframe as previous 737 versions, to prevent the need for pilots to be recertified before flying the new planes. The idea was to underplay the changes made, a fact clearly shown in the new pilot training manuals and courses. In particular, the MCAS system, which caused the crashes, was omitted entirely from the manuals and had changes never disclosed to the FAA. In addition, because of FAA policies, much of the certification process was actually left to Boeing to complete, in good faith. As a result, many key safety features were allowed to be “self-certified” by Boeing’s own engineers, with no government oversight. Finally, Boeing’s leadership also pushed for a much lighter and faster safety certification process, on the basis that the new plane was a “derivative model” of the older ones, which ended up being approved by the FAA.

Placing all the blame on Boeing would not be accurate, however, given the fact that it is the FAA’s main purpose to oversee and regulate civil aviation, with its primary focus being on safety. For reasons unknown, the FAA was the first governmental regulator to certify the aircraft, and the last to order the plane grounded. Even more frightening is the fact that after the initial crash, an internal FAA analysis showed that there was a high likelihood of future crashes, and yet they continued to let the plane transport passengers. A report released by the FAA, NASA and nine other international regulators later stated that the FAA was made aware of the MCAS system, and still did not request additional scrutiny of it. In their defense, the report stated that some details of the system were withheld and given in a fragmented manner, but it was still approved nonetheless.

- Jasmine Gordon, U2 Mechanical Engineering

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