Ten years ago, Boeing was under immense pressure to compete with its European rival Airbus when that company redesigned its A320 planes to carry larger, more fuel-efficient engines.
Boeing knew that to keep a competitive advantage over Airbus, it would have to add larger engines to its 737-800 single-aisle airplanes, its equivalent of the Airbus A320.
Boeing’s 737s, however, sat substantially lower to the ground than the Airbus A320. So whereas Airbus mounted larger engines under the wings without a problem – forming the new A320neo – Boeing had to position the larger engines higher. This made the top of the engines stick up slightly over the wings.
The Airbus A320neo performed identically to its predecessor requiring minimal additional pilot training – a huge selling point for that model. This perk prompted Boeing to claim that its redesigned 737s – the 737 Max 8 – would perform exactly like the older models and would require little pilot training.
Yet this wasn’t completely true. The higher engine stance on the 737 Max 8 created a side effect. When the airplane was taking off and in other situations requiring full thrust, the nose tended to point too high upward, putting it at risk of a stall. This difference in performance was a big problem for Boeing because the 737 Max 8 models were supposed to perform just like the old ones.
Instead of re-engineering the planes, Boeing developed a software solution that would automatically lower the plane’s nose if the aircraft’s incline were too steep. Boeing called this software fix the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) but it never drew attention to the system because it sold the planes as pretty much the same as the older 737s, just more fuel efficient.
Subsequently, the 737 Max 8 became the top-selling airplane on the market and Boeing racked up years of backorders for the model. Pilots received just two hours of additional iPad training for the new 737 Max 8, and that training included no mention of the MCAS.
As fleets of this new generation of 737s took to the air, pilots often complained that the nose of the Max 8 planes would suddenly point down. They didn’t know why the aircraft was doing this and were ill prepared to deal with it.
On Oct. 29, 2018, a Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by the Indonesian airline Lion Air departed from Jakarta. Just moments after takeoff, pilots fought to keep the nose of the plane up as it repeatedly pointed downward in an anti-stall maneuver. The plane ultimately crashed in the Java Sea, killing all 189 people aboard.
Months later, a 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines behaved in much the same way as Lion Air flight 610 moments after takeoff. Pilots on that flight ultimately were able to disable the MCAS system, but by the time they did, it was too late to recover. The plane crashed in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, killing all 157 people aboard.
Investigators have identified the MCAS as a link in both the deadly Boeing crashes. The “angle of attack” (AOA) sensors on the 737 Max 8, which inform the MCAS, may have been feeding the plane’s computers faulty data about the plane’s pitch.
Boeing is working on an overhaul of the software system, reportedly making the MCAS less aggressive. The company also plans to boost pilot training for the 737 Max 8 when flights resume on those planes. All the planes that were in service after the Ethiopian Airlines crash remain grounded.
On April 29, Boeing said certain safety alerts on its 737 Max jets didn’t perform as airlines would have expected because of a previously undisclosed error on its part, indicating both the company and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) missed an additional glitch in the Max software when the planes were certified two years ago.
The error involved alerts directed to the cockpit when two AOA sensors disagree with each other, sending conflicting data to the MCAS. In some of the planes that Boeing rolled out, the added safeguard was not operable.
The revelations coming from the Boeing crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia have already taken a huge toll on both the aircraft manufacturer and the FAA. Boeing has taken a giant financial hit as airlines look to Airbus for safer planes, and the company’s reputation as a leader in the aviation industry has been seriously weakened by the crashes and its response to them.
The FAA is also working to rebuild global confidence in itself as the world’s top aviation authority in the wake of the Boeing crashes. After the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the FAA continued to stand behind the safety of the 737 Max 8 while other countries grounded their fleets and closed airspace to the faulty jets.
According to Bloomberg, “More than 40 nations from the U.K. to Australia rejected public reassurances from the FAA after the second crash in Ethiopia last month and grounded the Max before the U.S. agency followed suit – a remarkable rebuke for a body that has been a regulatory leader since the dawn of the jet age.”
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. Mike will represent the family of an Ethiopian Airlines crash victim, and is investigating both deadly Boeing crashes on behalf of families. He also has written a book on the subject to assist other aviation lawyers, “Aviation Litigation & Accident Investigation.” The book offers an overview to the practitioner about the complexities of aviation crash investigation and litigation.
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The Washington Post – ‘Safety was just a given’: Inside Boeing’s boardroom amid the 737 Max crisis
The Washington Post – Boeing waited until after Indonesian plane crash to inform FAA of 737 Max safety review
CNN – Boeing knew about problems with the 737 Max the year before Lion Air crash and did nothing about them
Law360 – Boeing’s Greed Caused Ethiopian Max 8 Crash, Families Say
The Wall Street Journal – Boeing’s Own Test Pilots Lacked Key Details of 737 MAX Flight-Control System
Bloomberg Businessweek – Former Boeing Engineers Say Relentless Cost-Cutting Sacrificed Safety