Over the years, Boeing CEO’s have constantly stated publicly that Boeing has no higher priority than the safety of the flying public. As the details of the development of the company’s new 737 MAX aircraft become public, we are now seeing that internally, Boeing has had a very different #1 priority.
Specifically, based on Wall Street Journal interviews with current and former Boeing employees, it is very clear that for the 737MAX, the overarching goal was “to make the airplane as inexpensive as possible for airlines to adopt, regulators need to agree that existing 737 pilots should be allowed to immediately start flying the new 737 MAX, enabling the airline to avoid expensive and time-consuming pilot simulator training.”
Additionally, the 737 MAX was being redesigned to operate much more efficiently than the prior 737. To achieve that efficiency, the MAX design utilizes larger engines that are moved forward and higher than the prior model. With no pilot training needed and these operating efficiencies, Boeing sales personnel should have an easy time convincing the airlines to adopt the new plane,
A complication for Boeing has been that the engine placement changes affect how the plane handles. Its nose pitches up in certain altitude conditions, risking a stall; the term for a sudden loss of lift that keeps the plane aloft. To compensate for this, the engineers developed a system called MCAS that constantly looks at a sensor to see if the nose is starting to pitch up, and if so, it automatically pushes the nose down by moving the horizontal stabilizer on the tail by a small increment of 0.6 degrees. If the sensor says it needs more, it pushes again, and again, until it senses stability.
In testing the MAX, engineers realized that at lower speeds, the nose was not being pushed down enough, so they quadrupled the downward increment to 2.5 degrees. Also, the system could do that repeatedly, if needed. This change, coupled with a faulty sensor, played a major role in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air disasters.
In earlier 737’s, pulling back the yoke turned off automated systems and allowed the pilot to fly manually. Boeing didn’t tell the pilots that the MAX was different. When they pulled back the yoke, the nose would rise, but it didn’t shut off MCAS, which could keep misfiring, pushing the nose down.
The MCAS system was designed to do all of this with no pilot interaction. Why? As one senior Boeing official admitted to an FAA representative, “Out marching orders are no training impact on the plane.” Thus, Boeing argued, no need for pilot simulator training when the new plane is adopted by an airline.
Net, a pilot is flying an aircraft dependent on one sensor, and if it gives a false read, a pilot has no easy way to take over control of the plane. As the pilot madly scrambles to figure out what is going on, the system keeps misfiring, pointing the plane downward. Not only were the pilots not trained to handle this situation, the manuals for the MAX excluded a discussion of MCAS, except for a brief mention in the glossary. This attitude was quite prevalent as Boeing discussed the MCAS system with the FAA; one FAA engineer noted the planemaker described the system as “simply a few lines of code.”
Boeing execs flat out ignored their public promise as safety being the #1 priority, and internally made it clear that no costly simulator training, or any kind of training, had to be the promise to the airlines. The result: Boeing has an enormous trust problem that will take years to repair. The lesson is clear!