New Report: Overlooked facts about the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX

posted in: Blog | 0
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302
The Boeing 737 Max aircraft involved in the accident of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, seen in February 2019. Photo by LLBG Spotter /CC BY-SA 2.0

After nearly a two-year worldwide grounding the Boeing 737 Max has been cleared to return back to the skies over the U.S, Canada, Brazil, and Europe.

However, a recent report raised concerns over the safety of the aircraft once gain.

A former Boeing executive closely tied to the aircraft production sounded the alarm that the 737 Max might still not be as safe after all.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U. S. and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have already deemed the Boeing safe for fly.

However, Ed Pierson, the former Senior Manager of Production System Support at Boeing and a Senior leader of the 737 final assembly teams painted a different picture.

In his report Pierson corroborates that other factors largely overlooked by the FAA and the European safety agencies’ investigations might have contributed directly to the accidents involved the 737 Max.

The accidents

The Boeing 737 MAX was grounded after two fatal accidents in late 2018 and in early 2019 involving the type. The accidents caused the unfortunate death of 346 passengers and crew.

Flight 610 of the Indonesian airline Lion Air took off from Sukarno Hatta International Airport in Jakarta on October 29, 2018. Just 13 minutes after takeoff, it crashed into the Java Sea. All 189 passengers and crew died in the accident.

Ethiopian Airlines operated passenger flight 302 from Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. Just 6 minutes after takeoff, the aircraft crashed near the town of Bischoft, killing all 157 people on board.

Evident by the crash investigation reports, the two accidents occurred under similar circumstances.

The investigation into the cause of the crashes points to a malfunctioning software that is part of the automated control of the aircraft called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System).

The investigations revealed that Boeing did not give the airlines clear instructions on the existence of MCAS and did not requite pilots to be properly trained on the new flight automation.

The in-flight activation of MCAS in both incidents caused the planes to enter into unrecoverable dive.

With no clear knowledge of the MCAS and no proper training the pilots were not able to recover from the dive. As a result both planes fatally crashed.

For Pierson, the issues surrounding the crashes go far beyond the MCAS and what the investigation of the accidents discovered.

Testimony before a U.S . House Committee

The House Transportation Committee conducted a hearing overseeing the Boeing 737 Max certification on December 11, 2019.

As a key witness at the hearing Pierson pointed to issues regarding the Boeing production facilities. He testified that he remains concerned of “the dysfunctional production conditions” at the Boeing’s factory which “may have contributed to the tragic 737 MAX crashes.”

He emphasized that “the flying public will remain at risk unless this unstable production environment is rigorously investigated and closely monitored by regulators on an ongoing basis.”

According to the Pierson testimony the aircraft involved in the crash of Lion Air was manufactured at the Boeing Renton factory in WA in the summer of 2018. He described the conditions at the factory as “chaotic.”

After the Lion Air accident, he “immediately feared the chaotic factory conditions had contributed to this tragic loss of life”.

Pierson is suggesting that technical issues with aircraft most likely originated at the time of their production.

The new report

In his new report from January 20 Pierson expressed concern that issues at the production facility of Boeing haven’t been taken fully into consideration by FAA in an apparent move to get the 737 Max certified as soon as possible.

The report is based on the air crash investigations of both crashes. It claims that the aircraft involved in the accidents have already had production flaws at the time they entered into commercial service.

The flaws are not limited to MCAS alone but also include electrical problems occurring occasionally in the weeks leading to the accidents.

Pierson asserts that these flaws in the complex electrical wiring systems of the aircraft could have attributed to the inaccurate engagement of the MCAS.

MCAS is designed to adjusts the horizontal stabilizer to push the nose down when the aircraft operates in manual flight with flaps up at an elevated Angle of Attack (AoA). In both crashes, the MCAS activated by an erroneous indication from the only one AoA sensor attached to the the fuselage of the aircraft.

Beyond the report

Accidents with aircraft have been happening since the dawn of aviation. The progress in safety in commercial aviation has always been driven by learning from past air crash incidents.

It is evident from the popular National Geographic documentary series Air crash Investigation that airplane accidents lead to even more advanced aircraft and improved air travel safety.

With each accident air safety agencies make recommendations that act as a guiding force to build airplanes that are ever more reliable.

However, why the modern, new Boeing 737 Max had failed?

Aircraft issues are not uncommon. They are prone to happen to new and old planes alike. They often relate to a single part or component of the aircraft such as an engine or other piece of equipment.

To the contrary, the issues with the 737 Max seem to go beyond the failure of the MCAS alone. They appear to be more complex. As Pierson argues there were issues at the factory itself where the planes were manufactured.

During his hearing testimony in 2018 Pierson attested that not only the factory was in a “chaotic” and “dysfunctional” state but also the staff was struggling under pressure from management to build new planes as fast as possible.

According to Reuters, Boeing made key changes to the 737 Max before its recent FAA and EASA certification.

The MCAS will now depend on data from two Angle of Attack (AoA) sensors. The AoA sensor measures the angle at which the wing pierce through the air. In the original design Boeing produced the 737 Max with just one AoA sensor.

The 737 Max pilots will have to undergo flight simulator training to address the issues that stemmed from MCAS. Initially, Boeing failed to properly inform pilots and airlines of the existence of MCAS requiring that pilots do not need to undergo more training to operate the aircraft.

Boeing will also improve the wiring on the 737 Max. An issue that came about in the Pierson report as a contributing factor to the crashes. The wiring of the Max had a potential of a short circuit that could trigger a false data being sent to the MCAS software.

As reported by Reuters, “In February, Boeing said it found “foreign object debris” – an industrial term for rags, tools, metal shavings and other materials left behind by workers during production – in the fuel tanks of dozens of undelivered 737 MAX jets.”

The presence of foreign objects in the fuel tank of an aircraft can cause serious damage and even catastrophic explosion.

The Boeing company entered into business in 1916. The company has been in the business of making airplanes since its very start.

One would ask, how could a company with so much experience could jeopardize its reputation so bluntly? How could the safety of passengers can be traded over some petty monetary gains?

The black stain over 737 Max perhaps may never disappear. 

Follow Ian Powers:

Travel Blogger

Ian Powers is a travel blogger and nature enthusiast. Ian has over 20 years of aviation travel experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *