Grounded: The Boeing 737 MAX 8 Situation Recapped

By Celia Hameury

It all began on October 29th, 2018, when the first Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft crashed in the Java sea, 12 minutes after taking off from Jakarta. A total of 189 people were killed, including the Lion Air crew. As the deadliest airplane accident in Lion Air history and the second deadliest in all of Indonesian history, the tragedy shook the world. Not 5 months later, on Sunday March 10th, 2019, a second Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashed. Once again, the accident occurred only minutes after takeoff. The plane departed from Addis, the Ethiopian capital, and was headed for Nairobi. All 157 people on board were killed. Among them were 18 Canadians. These two accidents, occurring just a few months apart,  raised serious concerns.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 is a relatively new aircraft. The series was launched in 2011, underwent flight testing in 2016, and was certified in early 2017. Deliveries began in March of that year. By January 2019, a total of 350 aircrafts had been delivered, and 5011 ordered. The MAX 737 is not an entirely new aircraft; it is based on previous 737 planes, but was re-engineered to be more fuel efficient. The changes include a larger, more fuel-efficient engine set slightly higher than the engine on previous 737 designs as well as the lengthening of the nose landing gear by eight inches. This offered the plane a 14% improvement on fuel consumption compared to previous Boeing 737s, but also altered the way that the jet handled certain situations, causing an upward pitching moment. Boeing therefore created a software system to compensate for this, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Known more colloquially as the anti-stall system, the MCAS aimed to automatically stabilize the pitching of the nose. It was to be activated without a pilot, if sensors indicated that the Angle of Attack was too high.

Investigations into the Indonesia Lion Air crash suggest that this MCAS software was largely to blame for the first incident. The pilot was revealed to have struggled to keep the plane pointing upwards, as the anti-stall system forced the nose down. The battle ultimately ended in the crash of the plane. Preliminary findings suggest that the same problems occurred on the Ethiopian flight. Ethiopian airline officials stated that the jet’s flight pattern was similar to that of the Lion Air plane, gaining and losing altitude erratically over the short duration of its flight. This directed suspicion towards the anti-stall system, which was to blame for the Indonesian crash. Confirming these suspicions, black box data indicated that the angle-of-attack sensor was faulty, and sent erroneous data to the MCAS, incorrectly activating it. This caused the nose of the plane to be pushed downward, preventing the plane from flying. This second accident caused by the Boeing’s new MCAS points to a systemic problem with the aircraft, and is causing legal and financial problems for the aerospace giant.

Following the second crash of its new jet, Boeing saw its stock price fall by 12%, andthis was only the beginning of its woes. Major airlines and countries around the world soon began grounding the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets. By March 13th, Canada and the United states had joined the 46 countries grounding the planes. Soon after, Boeing banned the flight of their own planes worldwide, as a safety measure. Boeing is also facing legal repercussions, as families of the victims have accused Boeing of designing a faulty system and failing to warn the public and pilots about the plane’s erroneous sensors. Boeing’s significant role in the certification of its own plane has also raised questions and concerns regarding the self-certification power of manufacturers.

In an attempt to amend the situation, Boeing has outlined steps to restore the MAX 8 to flight. These include plans to fix the faulty MCAS software and install cockpit warnings to alert pilots of incorrect sensor data. Boeing has also developed a new mandatory training package for its plane, which pilots would need to undergo before the worldwide flight ban could be lifted. The engineering giant’s process will be carefully monitored this time by the US Department of Justice, and it’s FAA certification will be reviewed.

 

The two tragic Boeing MAX 8 accidents have alerted the world to the issues that may arise when manufacturers self-certify their planes. We can only hope that this insight will prevent future disasters like those of the Boeing jet crashes.

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