Developing Story: Boeing’s flagship 737 faces new adversity

044For the first time in over 25 years, Boeing’s 737 program is facing adversity. The 737 MAX, Boeing’s short-haul answer to the Airbus A320 NEO (New Engine Option), has now been grounded worldwide as investigators race to figure out if the aircraft is a danger to the flying public.

As this is a developing story, I’ll be covering the current information while also hypothesizing on the company’s future actions. Let’s get started with the basics!

What is the 737 MAX?

The MAX is Boeing’s latest iteration of their popular short-haul aircraft, the 737, which was first developed in the 1960s.

What distinguishes the MAX from other 737’s?

In short, the MAX program features new turbofan engines, larger scimitars (fins on the wing which reduce drag and fuel consumption), and an updated computer system.

The program consists of the MAX 7, MAX 8, MAX 9 and the stretched MAX 10. Most carriers currently operating the 737 NG (Next Gen; Boeing’s previous 737 program) are making the gradual switching to the MAX.

Why has the MAX been grounded?

Short Answer: two serious accidents (Lion Air Flight #610 & Ethiopian Airlines Flight #302) with over 300 fatalities (cumulatively) within 6 months. Both aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff without immediate explanation (Terrorism, missile strike, etc)

Long Answer: This is the harder one to answer; it’s also why I’ve labeled this story as “Developing”.

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WestJet has, supposedly, taken the opportunity to retrofit their MAX 8 fleet with their new business class product while the aircraft remains grounded. (Photo: John Jamieson, August 26th, 2018, YYC)

What’s the nature of the problem?

Well, we know that both accidents have occurred shortly after takeoff.

Typically, this is the stage of the flight where the Captain or First Officer switches over from manual control to the automatic pilot. It’s likely that they’re monitoring instruments, managing engine power, following noise abatement procedures, and quickly moving between radio frequencies. The cockpit is a fairly busy environment at this stage.

Both accidents potentially stem from a system native to the MAX program which is designed to prevent the aircraft from stalling. According to current information, it seems that the nose of both aircraft has reportedly been forced down by the computer system without command, potentially in response to a false emergency. If the aircraft’s systems are feeding the autopilot false information and taking control away from the pilots, the ramifications of this potential problem could be immense for the MAX program.

How do we know that this isn’t pilot error or inexperience on the part of the crew?

In short, we don’t. Modern aircraft have become so developed, most accidents nowadays are caused by pilot error. I won’t lie, after the Lion Air crash, the thought certainly entered my mind.

Developing countries like Indonesia, Brazil, and India, have struggled to deal with the skyrocketing demand in air travel. While airlines need a stream of individuals to operate and maintain the aircraft, the supply cannot come at the expense of safety. Training and safety procedures take time to implement; for Low-cost carriers like Lion Air, the aircraft needs to be in the air making money.

However, when the European Aviation Safety Association (EASA) grounded the aircraft, the story began to take a different turn.

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Sunwing was the first Canadian carrier to ground their Fleet of MAX 8’s (not pictured). Once Transport Minister Marc Garneau issued the countrywide grounding, Air Canada and WestJet followed suit. (Photo: John Jamieson, April 8th, 2017, YVR)

Significance for Boeing:

Before Marc Garneau made the decision to close Canada’s airspace to the 737 MAX, I was pretty decided on the safety of the aircraft. It seemed likely that the accidents had occured because of the crew’s inability to diagnose and respond to the problem.

However, once the jets were grounded in Europe, the diagnosis took a different turn. Something pushed the Canadian government over the edge. Something prompted them to act on the issue.

The fact that this may not be a pilot problem but infact a plane problem, presents an obstacle for Boeing. If the system is capable of throwing off any pilot, the aircraft could be grounded for a while.

Final Thoughts:

In my opinion, the nature of the problem highlights the complexities of the avionics. Has the system become overly automated at the expense of pilot control. It’s a question that will continue to be discussed if the investigations drag on.

As of March 15th, it was announced that the airlines should plan on having the aircraft out of service for a minimum of three weeks. I’ll try and provide new information as it becomes available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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