But a Real Investigation and House Cleaning is Needed Now
By Stephen Bryen
Boeing Company’s Board of Directors has fired Dennis Muilenburg. The handwriting has been on the wall for some time, but Muilenburg’s firing took way too long to happen. By all rights, Muilenburg should have resigned when the first 737 Max crashed. Instead he carried on a battle trying to prove that Boeing did everything right and the accidents (not disasters, as they really were) were caused either by bad pilots, bad maintenance or both.
As more and more information came out about a badly designed airplane with major flaws, both hardware and software, Boeing kept insisting that the problem was poor pilot training, not poor engineering or manufacturing issues.
The Boeing mess has implications that affect tens of thousands of people beyond the unspeakable tragedy that Boeing’s management and engineers caused, with the connivance of the FAA who acted conspiratorially with Boeing to certify the faulty planes.
Supplier companies such as Spirit Aerosystems, supplier of the aircraft’s fuselage, and General Electric, supplier of the craft’s engines, are now being hit hard by Boeing’s suspension of 737 Max manufacturing. Delays in re-certifying the planes because of lingering doubts about the proposed solution and fear that another crash may happen, has frozen the existing fleet of 737 Max’s and kept them from service, leaving suppliers and sub-suppliers in the lurch. There are reports that GE in particular faces an even larger crisis because it was skirting on the risk of bankruptcy even before the manufacturing suspension.
While almost all of the focus has been on faulty software leading to the disaster (a system called MCAS –Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System– being the prime suspect), no one has looked at the hardware in the 737.
The problem in both crashes was triggered by bad data coming from the plane’s angle of attack (AOA) sensor. The system was rigged originally to rely on one of the two AOA sensors, taking data for MCAS from the sensor on the pilot’s side of the aircraft.
Yet another Kluge fix is proposed now, to take data from both sensors. But this “solution” may not be a real fix, since there is nothing that assures that both sensors are not faulty or there is another cause, like bad wiring, causing the problem.
There are reports that there were significant production errors at the Boeing plant, and that faulty wiring rather than faulty sensors could be the underlying problem. As one of the whistle blowers told the FAA, the AOA sensor is an “historically reliable” part. After the first disaster of the Lion Air crash in the Java Sea (shortly after takeoff) in October, 2018, the post mortem revealed that the pilot’s AOA sensor had given faulty readings in a flight preceding the crash, and technicians replaced it before the fatal flight.
Could the faulty AOA readings been caused by bad wiring, or by bad connectors where the sensor plugs in (the sensor is mounted on the outside of the aircraft)?
The FAA appears to not have concerned itself with the plane’s wiring but has been exclusively focused on fixing the MCAS software.
The Boeing proposed solution is to limit MCAS to only one alert (MCAS controls the upward pitch of the aircraft and was originally needed for the 737 Max when new, bigger engines were used in this model causing a shift in the plane’s center of gravity and causing the plane to pitch up, a problem mainly on take-off climb outs). This “fix” would help prevent a condition of continuous corrections causing the plane to go out of control.
When MCAS sent bad signals continuously, the aircraft would head into a stall. Pilots trying to stop MCAS from controlling the flight system would find themselves in a continuous loop trying to stop MCAS from causing a crash. The aircraft elevator controls would not respond, the pilots found it impossible to shut down MCAS, and in the midst of their struggle the plane plunged inexorably into the ground.
The FAA seems to have grasped that the design of the aircraft was poor, because an FAA study, revealed in February 2018, before the first crash, said that the FAA determined that that 737 Max series would experience 15 fatal crashes over the life of the 737 program –a prediction that is much higher than for any other FAA certified aircraft. If the FAA already knew that the plane’s design was that problematic, why didn’t the FAA stop the program then and there?
A partial answer to that question is the FAA sees its role as the friend of industry, not the opponent, not even as an independent and objective overseer for air safety. That’s why the certification process has been largely dependent on information provided by the manufacturer, and is not verified by the FAA.
Congress has done next to nothing to clean up the FAA’s act and take strong action to make certain the FAA does not blunder again. The FAA officials responsible for approving the 737 Max still get their regular paychecks.
The lack of truly aggressive oversight does not bode well for the future.
We are now at a point where the entire Boeing mess needs a very strong review including a thorough scrubbing of Boeing’s manufacturing operations. Muilenburg would certainly have opposed any such inquiry, but the industrial and human disaster requires such a review take place, and soon.
No re-certification of the 737 Max should be permitted until both the hardware and software issues are satisfactorily resolved, and that there are no other surprises caused by production mistakes and bad workmanship. It is unlikely that the FAA on its own has sufficient authority to demand such actions –the President should order it immediately and do so by bringing in outside experts, not relying on bureaucrats or Boeing.
America’s aerospace industry is vital to our economy and every effort must be made to restore it fully. That means a complete house cleaning and intensive investigation. Neither has yet happened.