The above image is an airplane engine. It’s sitting in a vacant field in Bishoftu, Ethiopia— it is a part of the wreckage of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed on March 10, 2019. 157 people died. This crash occurred just a few months after another flight, Lion Air 610, crashed in Indonesia and killed 189 people. These two ill-fated flights were using the same plane: The Boeing 737 MAX 8. And its engine is the key to understanding why this particular plane has caused so many problems in recent times.
But there’s nothing actually wrong with this engine. The engines were so good that other airplane manufacturers were racing to get these for themselves. That’s where the problem started. The two biggest airplane manufacturers in the world are Airbus and Boeing. And they have a fierce rivalry. If one of them can offer a better plane, the other could lose a lot of market share. That’s exactly what was about to happen in 2010. Airbus announced that they would update their most popular model, the A320, a single-aisle airplane that services many domestic flights around the world. You’ve probably been on one. For this new plane, Airbus had a major update. It would have a new kind of engine. It was much larger than the previous engine, but it would make the plane 15 percent more fuel-efficient. Apart from saving a lot of money for the airlines, the pilots would find it easy to operate the plane as there would be no change in the controls of the plane from the previous model. There would be no requirement for additional training either. The new aircraft was called A320 NEO.
This was a major problem for Boeing. To compete with Airbus, Boeing’s understandable move was to upgrade the engine on their single-aisle plane, the 737. But there was one issue.
If you compare 737 next to the Airbus A320. Notice how the 737 is lower to the ground than the A320. This meant Airbus could slip a new engine under the wing of their A320. But there wasn’t enough room under the wing of the Boeing 737. But a few months later, Boeing’s product development head had a revelation. He said: “We figured out a way to get a big enough engine under the wing.” Their solution was to move up the engine on the wing so that it would be somewhat higher and it would fit on their new 737 aircraft. Boeing called this model the 737 MAX. And just like Airbus with the A320, Boeing officials said their new plane was so similar to its precursors and that the pilots would only need minimal supplementary training sessions.
As expected the 737 MAX became the hottest selling plane on the market. And it helped Boeing keep up with AirBus. But, moving the engine up on the 737 had a major flaw. When the 737 MAX was in full thrust, like during take-off, the nose inclined to point too far upward, which could lead to a stall. This was problematic because these planes were supposed to behave exactly like the old ones. So Boeing came up with a workaround. Instead of re-engineering the plane, they installed software that automatically pushed the nose down if the pilot flew the plane at too high of an angle. They called it the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. But because Boeing was selling the 737 MAX as pretty much the same plane like the 737, they didn’t highlight the new MCAS system in the pilot’s manual. Many pilots only got a two-hour iPad course before entering the cockpit of the new plane for the first time. And the “training material did not mention” the MCAS software being installed. In 2018, numerous American domestic and international pilots objected to the federal government that the 737 MAX was “suddenly nosing down.” On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 took off from Jakarta. In the flight report, which shows the plane’s altitude over time, you can see that the plane was in full thrust during take-off.
But at a certain altitude, the nose of the plane kept pitching downward. The pilots couldn’t figure out why this was happening. The captain “asked the first officer to check the quick reference handbook.” They couldn’t find the solution. The pilots continued to fight with the MCAS. The plane struggled to gain altitude. Reports show it was likely because the computer was getting incorrect sensor data, pushing the plane toward the earth below. 12 minutes after take-off, the plane crashed into the Java Sea. In the Ethiopia crash, the report shows that the pilots were actually able to disable the MCAS, but it was too late to overcome the malfunctioning MCAS sensors. The similarities of both incidents cannot be overlooked. In both cases the MCAS system is the main cause, to which pilots have no idea how to go around the issue.
For now, almost every 737 MAX 8 in service has been grounded. And the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is facing an enquiry over how they hurried this plane through authorization. Boeing’s response has been to apply a software update and make the MCAS “less aggressive,” while also saying they will intensify pilot training on how to turn it off. This problem started with a Boeing’s race to contest with its rival Airbus. It pressed them to pretend as their new plane behaved exactly like their old model. Even when it did not.
Why Boeing 737 MAX to take the air again?
On 24th Jan 2020, The head of the Federal Aviation Commission (FAA) announced plans to approve the Boeing 737 earlier than expected. According to FAA’s internal report published at the House committee hearing in December, the agency refused to land the 737 MAX even after its own models indicated that the aircraft would suffer fatal crashes every two to three years. The study expects a total of 15 serious events over the next 30-45 years.
Southwest Airlines, the main manufacturer of the 737 MAX, has 34 aircraft in its fleet along with hundreds of pending orders when the aircraft is ungrounded. United and American Airlines also have large backorders for their aircraft. The 737 MAX grounding had a significant negative impact on these airlines. And the cost has already been in the billions.
While knowing the dangers of the 737 MAX and its MCAS system, FAA regulators allowed the aircraft to fly. This decision indirectly led to the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 that killed 157 people.
When the FAA ungrounds the 737 MAX, it will bring its already tarnished reputation on the line. Although FAA approval would act as a green light for U.S.-based airlines to operate a controversial aircraft, it is not clear whether other countries will follow the lead of the regulator after such high-profile imprudence.
Do you think the authorities are taking a wrong decision and repeating their past mistakes?