Friday, April 10, 2020

The Boeing Max 8 Debacle

I have had opinions about this industrial crime since March 2019.

As is always the case when I have an opinion, I periodically posted about the Max 8 during March, April and May of 2019.

Then I got distracted and wandered off to other subjects like a fire at Notre Dame.

But recently I read an article on line from The Verge.

Here is an excerpt, dated yesterday.

TheThe important thing to know about the 737 Max is that it was a rush job. In 2010, Boeing’s only rival, Airbus, unveiled the A320neo, a direct competitor to the 737 Next Generation that could fly farther on less fuel and with lower emissions than any other narrow-body airplane. Boeing was caught by surprise: while Airbus had developed the neo in secret, Boeing’s engineers had spent five years debating whether to design a new 737 replacement or simply update the airframe, without resolution. The neo changed that in a matter of months.


But in order to offer its own new product when the new Airbus came out, Boeing would have to rush the airplane out the door in just five years — less time than it took to develop either the 777 or the 787. The main selling point of the new 737 was clear: new engines that would increase the airplane’s fuel efficiency and range. But to hit that ambitious launch date, Boeing would have to take shortcuts on just about everything else.

The new engines, which were larger and heavier than the ones on the Next Generation, did indeed make the Max just as fuel-efficient as its rival. But they also disrupted the flow of air around the wings and control surfaces of the airplane in a very specific way. During high-angle climbs, this disruption would cause the control columns in the airplane to suddenly go slack, which might cause pilots to lose control of the aircraft during a dangerous maneuver.

Boeing could have fixed this aerodynamic anomaly with a hardware change: “adaptive surfaces” on the engine housing, resculpted wings, or even just adding a “stick pusher” to the controls that would push on the control column mechanically at just the right time. But hardware changes added time, cost, and regulatory scrutiny to the development process. Boeing’s management was clear: avoid changes, avoid regulators, stay on schedule — period.


So the development team attacked the hardware problem with software. In addition to the standard software suite on the 737 Max’s two computers, Boeing loaded another routine called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). It would run in the background, waiting for the airplane to enter a high-angle climb. Then it would act, rotating the airplane’s horizontal stabilizer to counteract the changing aerodynamic forces.

On paper, it seemed elegant enough. It had a side benefit, too: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t scrutinize software as hard as it does any physical change to the airframe. So MCAS was approved with minimal review, outdated computers and all.

But Boeing’s software shortcut had a serious problem. Under certain circumstances, it activated erroneously, sending the airplane into an infinite loop of nose-dives. Unless the pilots can, in under four seconds, correctly diagnose the error, throw a specific emergency switch, and start recovery maneuvers, they will lose control of the airplane and crash — which is exactly what happened in the case of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

The second crash grounded the 737 Max. Since then, Boeing has been working to fix the software issue and get the airplane approved by regulators. But it’s been slow going.

This was of intense interest to me because of what I have been saying since March last year.

And I am totally unqualified to have been saying what I have been saying.

The old saying about even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then seems to apply.

Here are some of my totally unqualified observations.

Boeing 737 Max 8: 12 March 2019

US airlines that use this aircraft and the FAA who supposedly keep an eye on the airlines in the interest of the safety of the citizens of the United States all say that any grounding of the aircraft would be premature.

We need more data they say.

I guess some people might be ok being more data.

But I am totally uncomfortable with the proposition.

After all, more data is probably not no new news, but is instead more crashes.
How many does the FAA need?


I’m not going to volunteer.

Boeing 737 Max 8–Follow On: 12 March 2019
In my most recent post I pointed out that the FAA doesn’t want to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 until they have more data.

I further wondered if that additional data might be the obvious – more crashes.

Putting two and two together I said that I wasn’t going to volunteer for that gathering of data.
Now, tonight, on the PBS News Hour, I just heard that the FAA has told Boeing that flying the 737 Max 8 involves a “risk of impact with terrain”.

Since it’s only a risk, and at that, only a risk of impact with terrain, I withdraw my concerns.
I would hope the related passenger safety briefing will include the fact that the FAA has said that this plane may have impact with terrain.

Not An Admission Of Fault: 29 March 2019
Boeing today has said that its fix to the control software for the 737 Max aircraft “is not an admission of fault”.

A Boeing Press Relations Factotum elaborated:

“No admission of fault; just an alternate flight pattern system based upon the  clearly stated preferences of the flying public: they would prefer flying on planes that don’t fly uncontrollably, in an attitude vertical to the surface of the earth, and into the ground.

“They have spoken and we have listened”.

Why I Really Don’t Want To Ever Fly On A Boeing 737 Max 8: 26 April 2019
I hate trying to be safe.

I have posted to this blog numerous times about how I feel about “being safe”.

I think that being safe is tantamount to being dead.

The mental state of a safe being is similar to a deer in the headlights.

That is a state of existence I find to be really unattractive.

But being stupid is something the avoidance of which I DO endorse.

My understanding of the ongoing Boeing 737 debacle is that, to provide an apparently new plane quickly and economically to the airlines of the world, a plane that needed to be better, cheaper to fly and requiring no pilot training investment, Boeing did the obvious: they hung newer, bigger, more powerful and – I guess – more economical engines on a tried and true airframe, the 737, which has been in production since 1967 or thereabouts.

There being an enormous amount of sunk costs in that old an airframe, the Max 8 looked to be the cash cow of ever existing cash cows – probably exceeding the IBM Selectric typewriter.

The only problem with the idea has been that the 1967 airframe decked out with 2015 engines presented an anomalous silhouette to the slipstream.

All the implications of this remain unknown.

There have been only two data points so far.

Those data points are what we used to call fatal crashes.

But one additional data point that does seem to be documented is that when these new software-craft are in a steep climb and are using maximum engine throttle (we often refer to that condition as “takeoff”) the software puts the plane in a nose down attitude.

That, of course, if allowed to persist, would result in what the FAA has described as “risk of impact with terrain”.

It turns out that Boeing had realized at the outset that that was the problem of the old air-frame with the new engines in the slipstream.

“No problem” said the Boeing slipstream factotums; “we will analyze the slipstream with sensors and feed that analysis to some software in real time and, voila, we will have a modern aircraft in the slipstream; there will be no ‘risk of impact with terrain’”.

Something about that didn’t work.

So I would have to call the Boeing 737 Max 8 (and 9) the pretend aircraft for the people who worry about being safe but don’t mind being stupid.

Max 8 Once More: 29 May 2019
Last year a Max 8 crashed in Indonesia.

Boeing and the FAA looked at each other, shrugged and – I think this might be true – suggested pilot error.

As time went on there might have been some small mention of software, but I’m not sure and I’m way too lazy to try to do any research.

Early this year another Max 8 crashed.

I do remember that Boeing and the FAA resisted grounding the plane at that time because they needed “more data”.

I couldn’t help wondering how many more crashes would be needed for a complete data set.

At that time the FAA did acknowledge that the Max 8 might have a proclivity for coming into contact with the terrain.

Also the software issue became an issue.

Boeing said that they had made some software tweaks and everything was good to go.
By this time the rest of the world had gotten pretty nervous and had grounded all Max 8s.
Finally US airlines began grounding them and finally Boeing and the FAA agreed that that was probably prudent.

I assume in various backrooms there was a lot of discontent about not getting any more data.

Since then Boeing has been feverishly working on “the software”.

That has been quite a long time now.

And, last I heard, they are still working on it.

There must have been more than a tweak involved.


In mid-May I posted this observation as someone who had seen a debacle coming, ever since Boeing started thinking great thoughts in lieu of being a great manufacturer.

Thoughts On Boeing: 5 May 2019

By the time I was born in early World War Two Boeing had become a great company.
That greatness was the result of a fortuitous confluence of factors.

A high level distillation of those factors can be described: great organized labor, great entrepreneurial management and great get-your-hands-on-the-products-and-processes executives, all three of whom were imbued with deep scientific curiosity, engineering ability and fanatic commitment to quality.

And those managers, engineers and other skilled workers and executives lived – together daily – on the shop floor.

And – I think this is probably true; it’s hard to imagine otherwise given the culture of those long ago times – they all ended up after hours in the same Renton, bars, grills and taverns; they probably kept talking – in the egalitarian environment that bars, grills and taverns can foster – shop: what was ahead of schedule; what was behind schedule; what was going well; what was screwed up; how to keep getting better and how to fix the problems.

That all produced airplanes like the 70 year old B52 which is still a central part of America’s air war capability.

Or the, until Max 8, flawless (yeah I haven’t forgotten the batteries, but that got fixed quickly and transparently and permanently) string of 7XX airliners.

Have you ever seen the 707 doing barrel rolls over Lake Washington?

So how could that company get to the Max 8?

Of course I don’t know.

But I think it has to do with the fact that a few years back a cadre of executives having no cultural or hereditary relationship to the Renton Culture decided that they needed to remove themselves from the sweaty stench of the managers and workers.

They moved off to Chicago and began thinking great thoughts in tall buildings.

In that environment, far from “the egalitarian environment that bars, grills and taverns can foster” it is easy to imagine how executives could have spun – to each other – a plane whose design point: quick production, cheap cost and no pilot training, but which was really a lumbering disaster needing sensors and software to keep it from crashing, as a no sweat slam dunk.

And then they spun it, slam dunked it and lied, misrepresented and obfuscated its problems, not the least of which is that the spinners are all off in Chicago.

And two planeloads of human beings have died because of the ivory tower spinners.
I think the Chicago tribe should all be fired and replaced post haste, with promoted-from-within managers and workers from Renton.

And their prime directive should be get back to the bars after work and hammer out – once more and again – what it means to be a great company: what it means to be Boeing, a Seattle company.

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