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Boeing 737 MAX Investigation

Engineering Questions, Regulatory Failures Follow the Boeing 737 MAX

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After two fatal crashes in a five-month span, the Boeing 737 MAX has been grounded worldwide as investigators seek answers for what may have gone wrong with Boeing's newest jet.

And while the causes of October's Lion Air crash that killed 189 people and last week's Ethiopian Airlines flight that killed 157 people are still unclear, the Seattle Times has begun to unearth some answers. Their story raises major questions about how both Boeing – the world's largest plane manufacturer – and the Federal Aviation Administration – the U.S. safety regulator of air travel – have handled the 737 MAX, which hit the skies in 2016.


Boeing 737 MAX Investigation


The story is dense and worth a full read, diving deep into the mechanics of flight and what may have gone wrong with both doomed flights. But here's what it boils down to:


  • The Federal Aviation Administration repeatedly handed off critical pieces of safety certification to Boeing itself – the company that would benefit from its speedy approval.
  • That included a new automated flight control system called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), which has become a central focus for investigators of both fatal crashes. Designed to avert a potential stall when the plane's nose tilts too high in the sky, MCAS automatically kicks in when the plane senses it is veering too high.
  • Boeing increased the degree to which MCAS can pull down the plane's nose, from .6% to 2.5% – and it didn't inform the FAA of this change.
  • Every plane is equipped with at least two sensors that measure its angle relative to the ground. Yet Boeing designed MCAS to react to a single sensor, meaning it could kick on as a result of a faulty reading sensor.
  • Boeing wanted to make sure existing 737 pilots did not need to be retrained on the 737 MAX. Yet pilots were not informed that this new flight control system even existed: “Boeing decided that 737 pilots needed no extra training on the MCAS system — and indeed that they didn’t even need to know about it. It was not mentioned in their flight manuals.”


Neither Boeing nor the FAA answered direct questions about these concerns. Boeing said in a statement that the story contained “some significant mischaracterizations” about MCAS.

It's still too early to draw a firm connection between the two fatal crashes, but this story paints a damning portrait of potential issues with the Boeing 737 MAX. So much so that the Wall Street Journal now reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation is now reviewing the certification and launch of the plane.

In October, Lion Air pilots apparently fought a losing battle with the MCAS system, trying to pull the plane back up as MCAS continually forced it down. It eventually plunged into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board.

And though the investigation of last Sunday's crash is just beginning, the Ethiopian Airlines crash looks similar. It crashed shortly after takeoff, after failing to gain much altitude. Ethiopia's Transport Minister said Sunday there were “clear similarities” between the two crashes after reviewing the flight data from the plane's so-called black box.


Bottom Line

After two crashes on brand-new planes, nearly 350 people have been killed. And while there are still no clear answers as to what brought those planes down, it's clear the shoddy regulatory review will become a focal point.


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