Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing

Image of Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing
Release Date: 
November 16, 2021
Reviewed by: 

Information flows at a rapid pace. Following a plane crash, people are anxious to know the cause. Little factual information is available. Click-bait exploits this vacuum with sensationalized accounts of what might have happened. In a few days, speculation coalesces around a central narrative that becomes accepted as if it were fact. Whether true or false, the anxiety-driven need for answers is satisfied. Months later, when the actual cause is announced, there is no interest. The story the media sold us stands.

For example, in 2009 after Air France 447 crashed en route from Rio to Paris, we were told the plane fell out of the sky due to a reckless attempt to fly through the deadly storms that lurk in the dreaded intertropical convergence zone. There is, in fact, nothing dramatic about the weather in that area. Flights ahead of and behind AF447 on the same route found the weather unremarkable.

Click-baiters had to take a different tack when Sullenberger landed in the Hudson River. Since everyone survived, it became "the miracle on the Hudson.” Though Sullenberger bungled the landing, that was not reported. Ditches instructions in the Airman's Information Manual call for approaching the water with extra speed, leveling the plane off just above the water, and as the speed bleeds off, easing the plane into the water. Sullenberger did the opposite. He approached the water at such a dangerously slow speed that the plane was not fully controllable, and he could not keep the plane from slamming into the Hudson carrier-landing style. Airbus had designed the plane for a maximum water entry angle of one degree. Impact with the water was at a 3.1-degree angle. The fuselage split open. Frigid water rushed into the cabin, submerging the life-rafts at the rear doors. With these life rafts inaccessible, passengers crowded on the wings. As they stood there, the wing was sinking beneath their feet. Amazingly, all were rescued by boats in the area. Sullenberger’s blunder had caused no loss of life; there was no story there. To produce an engrossing story, Sullenberger was made into a hero.

Little more than click-bait can be expected from a book when its author who knows so little about his subject he says, on the very first page, "machinists climb underneath them [the planes being manufactured] to hand-crank stubborn rivets to the desired torque." Rivets are neither cranked nor torqued. There is nothing stubborn about them. Rivets are slid into a precisely predrilled countersunk hole, then hammered flush with the plane’s aluminum skin by a compressed air-driven rivet gun. Later, he faults the MAX for not having what he says other modern planes have: a computerized checklist. No such thing exists. 

But the crucial shortcoming is unawareness that properly trained pilots memorize specified emergency procedures and demonstrate their ability to perform the steps. One of these procedures, "runaway stabilizer trim," is essentially unchanged since the 1960s. It has two steps. Both are simple. The pilot's thumb rests on a switch that, if flicked, ends the stabilizer's movement. That is the first step. The second step is to turn off the power to the stabilizer trim motor so the problem cannot reoccur. 

What causes a runaway condition—a MCAS failure or some other failure—is irrelevant. Any properly trained pilot can recognize and correct runaway stabilizer trim in three moves or less. When runaway stabilizer trim occurred on the Lion Air plane that would crash the next day, a pilot from another airline who was hitching a ride in the cockpit "jump seat" told the captain—unaware that the procedure he should have memorized even existed—what to do.

The point is this: If a properly trained pilot sitting away from the controls can coach a poorly trained pilot at the controls through a procedure, how difficult can the procedure be? It certainly is not what the click-bait media and this author claim: Runaway stabilizer trim is difficult to identify and impossible to fix quickly enough to avoid a crash.

The author of this book would have us believe the MAX was a death trap because Boeing management—having been poisoned by the management philosophy of G.E's "Neutron Jack” Welch—destroyed Boeing’s engineering expertise.

How, then, did the MAX operate flawlessly for two years and 500,000 flights until falling into the hands of an airline so problematic that, for several years, it had been banned from flying into the E.U.? The New York Times reported on November 24, 2019, "Lion Air has a track record of working its pilots to the point of exhaustion, faking pilot training certification and forcing pilots to fly planes they worried were unsafe, including the plane that crashed."

According to the distinguished aviation writer and pilot William Langewiesche, "What we had in the two downed airplanes was a textbook failure of airmanship. In broad daylight, these pilots couldn't decipher a variant of simple runaway trim . . . . They were the deciding factor here—not the MCAS, not the MAX." (New York Times, November 18, 2019)

Two highly respected accident investigators, Greg Feith and John Goglia, said the Indonesian government's accident investigators "obviously reverse-engineered the 'facts' to support their preconceived conclusions that the airplane and MCAS are to blame.” Feith and Goglia found the pilots who crashed had "lacked basic flying skills," and "had no business being in the cockpit."

When a recently manufactured plane crashes, it might naturally seem to be the fault of the manufacturer. Though the MAX Lion Air crashed was new, the angle of attack sensor Lion Air mechanics put on the plane, purchased from a used aircraft parts dealer in Florida, was 100% junk. Had the mechanics checked the sensor's operation, as their paperwork claimed, they could not have failed to recognize the unit should have been destroyed. Instead, they let it destroy a plane and its occupants. The author calls this criminal falsification that led to the crash "an oversight."

The author and other click-baiters have criticized Boeing for not providing a backup for a sensor that could cause runaway stabilizer trim. All manufacturers, not just Boeing, have used the same backup for runaway stabilizer trim for 50 years: the backup has a name. It is called a pilot. 

If there is any legitimate criticism of Boeing to be had, it is that Boeing did not push back against a disturbing trend: In countries where the aviation safety culture is weak, airlines compete so fiercely to produce lower fares that they install pilots in their cockpits who are insufficiently trained to serve, as pilots traditionally have, as the backup for certain aircraft system failures.

Can Boeing be legitimately blamed for not making airliners incompetent-pilot proof? Airbus has made an attempt to do so, but the results are not encouraging. Computerized limitations on what a pilot can do cause as many crashes as they prevent. As computerization makes airliners easier to fly, piloting skills decline. And when the computerization misfires, the pilots have to not only out-think the computers but to fly the plane in a way they may have never mastered: by hand! A case in point is the 2013 Asiana crash in San Francisco. Electronic guidance to the runway was out of service because its antenna was being relocated. On a beautiful sunny day, four pseudo-pilots in the cockpit, two captains, one instructor captain, and one copilot could not do what any amateur pilot can do: fly the plane by hand. They crashed into the runway seawall a quarter-mile short of the intended landing spot.

What Greg Feith and John Goglia said about the Indonesian investigators holds true for this book as well: Facts were reverse-engineered to support a preconceived conclusion that the MAX and the MCAS were to blame.