The 737 Max Disaster
Updated: Feb 28, 2022
In this article, I explore exactly what happened behind the scenes in two of the most deadly airplane crashes in the 21st century.
At the dawn of the year 2018, commercial aviation was in the midst of its safest period with no major crashes in the past year. Companies like Boeing and Airbus were churning out energy efficient, state of the art airplanes like the A350 and 787 Dreamliner. Boeing, on the surface, seemed like the perfectly well-oiled machine that it was known to be, prioritising safety and quality above everything else, but it took two crashes and a dragged-out investigation to find out what was really happening behind the scenes. The first was the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in late October of 2018, and second one was Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in early 2019.
Lion Air Flight 610
This was a routine domestic flight from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta to Depati Amir Airport in Pangkal Pinang, the capital of the Bangka Belitung Island Province in Indonesia. Lion Air was flying their two-month-old 737-Max airplane on this route. The plane took off at 6:20 AM local time and was scheduled to arrive at Pangkal Pinang at 7:20 AM. It took off in a south west direction and then turned 180° to follow its flight path. Everything was routine for the first few minutes, but then something strange started to happen. The stick shaker on the side of the pilot's yoke (steering wheel) started to rattle vrigorously. There were altitude and speed disagreements, and the master caution sounded indicating that the plane was in a stall. However, this was a false alarm, since the plane was clearly flying. The pilot corrected the altitude and continued ascending for a few more minutes. However, the same thing happened again. The rattling, the disagreements and the master caution. There was a tidal wave of distractions, only this time there was a massive force on the nose of the plane that tilted it downwards. The airplane was fighting against the pilot and he did all he tried to pull up. For the next few minutes, the plane was in an oscillating movement as man fought machine. The pilot failed and thirteen minutes later, at 6:33 AM, all 189 people on board took their final breath as Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea. This was the most fatal airplane incident since the disappearance of Malaysian Airline Flight 370 in 2014.
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302
Less than five months after the Flight 610 crash, another incident with the 737 Max occurred in Africa. Flight 302 was an international flight from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia to Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. The airplane took off from Bole International Airport at 8:38 in the morning with 149 passengers and 8 crew members on board. One minute into the flight, the captain instructed the first officer to report a ‘flight control’ problem to the control tower. They were facing the same problem as flight 610. The stick shaker was vibrating, there were altitude and speed disagreements and the master caution alarm (main alarm). Two minutes into the flight, the plane started a nose dive but the pilots were able to manage it and the plane became steady for a few seconds. Three minutes into the flight, the nose dive happened again and the plane started to accelerate at high speeds. The airplane was beyond its safety speed limit and with the altitude continuing to decline, flight 302 was given permission to return back to Addis Ababa. Other flights were also diverted and everything was prepped on the emergency runway for this airplane to touch the ground. Five minutes into the flight, in another desperate attempt to stop the descent, the pilot asked he first officer to help him but one minute later, the plane disappeared from radar screens. The plane had crashed into the ground at 1100 kmp/h, killing all 157 passengers on board.
The striking similarities between both these crashes raised eyebrows all over the world and all the focus was now on the response from Boeing, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the United States Government. While some people chalked up the crash of Flight 610 to pilot error, this second occurrence, which
happened in the exact same manner silenced them. An airplane manufactured by the most esteemed company in the world had failed. This was a scar on the century long legacy Boeing had worked to build. Within half an hour of the Ethiopian Airlines Crash, the president of the United States, Donald Trump was on national television with an order to ground all 737-Max’s. This was the first time an FAA order had been carried out by POTUS and this turned heads in the aerospace community.
But what exactly went wrong here. We will start by looking at the crashes themselves, and them zoom out to investigate the bigger problem at Boeing.
What is MCAS?
The 737-Max airplane is a reengineered version of the 55-year-old 737. This airplane, in its prime was the workhouse of many major carriers around the world. In 2016, Boeing fitted this plane with more fuel-efficient engines and released it in what came to be one of the biggest aircraft launches in history, with Boeing receiving over 600 orders in the first year However, using a 55-year-old design with modern engines is no easy task and this came with its own set of problems. The fuel-efficient engines were bigger, and this meant that they had to be fitted further ahead and higher on the wing. As a result, there would be a greater downward force on the nose. With this, comes the added risk of a stall. To correct this problem, Boeing added the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). This was a software patch that was connected to the angle of attack sensor on the right side on the cockpit and to the stabiliser trim at the back of the plane. The angle of attack sensor measures the angle at which the nose of the plane is. This data is sent to MCAS and if needed, MCAS instructs the stabiliser trim to adjust the angle of the nose. This was meant to be used in stall scenarios but what Boeing didn’t realise was the amount of power MCAS was given over the airplane. This was a safety critical system. While it sounds useful, MCAS had only one point of failure, the angle of attack sensor. If anything went wrong with that, if it was broken or struck by a bird, it would send false data to MCAS. Since this was the only input to MCAS, it would have to be accepted and this may lead to fatal consequences.
What was the role of MCAS in the crashes?
MCAS was designed to activate itself when the plane reached certain speeds at certain altitudes. Unfortunately, Lion Air Flight 610 met those characteristics and about six minutes into the flight, MCAS activated itself, essentially taking over control of the airplane. The stick shaker vibration mentioned earlier was a result of this MCAS activation but the pilots did not know what to do. However, on Ethiopian, the first officer responded correctly and switched off MCAS. However, by this time the plane was already in an uncontrolled descent. Because of this, it was flying at astronomically high speeds putting undue pressure on the stabiliser. Even though the pilots tried to adjust the nose of the plane, the magnitude of the force caused by the high speed of the plane was too much for them to overcome. Essentially, MCAS was a faulty software that Boeing had installed without considering all possible scenarios.
Why didn’t the FAA ground the 737 Max after the first crash itself?
Boeing forms a major part of the economy of the United States and brings in billions of dollars every single year. Their mark is on some of the greatest innovations in the defence industry and commercial aviation. They have been entangled with the government of the United States for over half a century. After the first crash, Boeing pointed that there was no conclusive evidence to show that it was the fault of the airplane, and they were right. After the crash of flight 610, there was only speculation and with Boeing’s claim of a six-week software patch, the 737 was allowed to remain in the air. However, when sorting through the debris of the Ethiopian flight, they found the jackscrew. Essentially, the jackscrew is the part that controls the stabiliser trim of the airplane, a hardware component part of MCAS. This jackscrew was found to be in a completely nose down position, proving without a shadow of a doubt that it was the fault of the Boeing 737-Max. No legacy or economic power could save Boeing now. In the face of such glaring evidence, the FAA had no choice but to ground the planes.
Did Boeing put an unsafe aircraft in the air, and if so, why?
In simple terms, the answer is yes. The 737 Max was not fit for commercial aviation and out of greed, Boeing put the plane in the air. At the dawn of the millennium, Airbus, Boeings biggest competitor was on the rise and had even crossed Boeing in terms of market share and number of orders. In 2010, Airbus launched the A320 neo, a narrow body plane that had the most fuel-efficient engines in the history of aviation. Boeing was left stunned and had no response ready for this. At the time, all of their resources were poured into the 787 Dreamliner Program and the added expense combined with the decade long process of developing a new airplane did not sit well with Boeing. As a result, they decided to revamp an old aircraft in response to Airbus and only 6 years later, the 737 Max had its first flight.
Why did the pilots on Flight 610 not know what to do?
The focus of this program was to get it out as soon as possible and one of the ways to do this was to avoid pilot training time. If a whole new airplane was released with major changes, pilots would have to be taken out of service and trained on the simulator. This costs a lot of money. Hence, Boeing told airlines that the specs of this aircraft were the same as the 737 Max and that no retraining was required. This was a major factor that lured airlines to buy the plane. While most critics pinned the blame on the pilot’s incompetence, the truth is he wasn’t even informed of MCAS. In fact, not a single soul outside Boeing even knew what MCAS was. They had added it as a minor change to the stabiliser trim. This system was chalked up as insignificant and no separate information was given to pilots and airlines about it. After the crash of Flight 610, Boeing responded by sending their representatives to every airline and educating them about MCAS. They said that a software fix would be rolled out within six weeks, but as we all know, nothing happens in six weeks. The pilots on Ethiopian Airlines knew about MCAS and responded as they were supposed to. However, being such a critical system at such a critical time, reports show that any reaction time more than ten seconds would be fatal. In the context of things, ten seconds is barely enough time for the pilot to comprehend the thousands of alarms going off around him, let alone manipulate a system he had learned about less than 5 months back. In response to the blame being put on the pilots, Captain Sullenberger, famously known as Captain Sully, said this iconic quote, "Pilots should not be expected to compensate for the flawed designs of airplanes."
The problem at Boeing.
In the mid 1900’s, Boeing was the pinnacle of Aerospace engineering and was known for its approach of prioritising safety and quality. They had become a dominant force over national and international skies and were releasing newer, more efficient planes like clockwork. However, in 1997, McDonnel Douglas merged with Boeing in a deal worth upward of $13 Billion. This deal brought with it a culture of greed and corner cutting. The new Boeing was driven by profits and their primary goal became making money. Their focus shifted from customer satisfaction to profit making and as a result, the company started to fall off, paving the way for Airbus. Boeing caved to the pressure from Wall Street and this toxic culture finally reached its peak when 346 people were killed in a span of 5 months in 2 fatal airline crashes, tainting the legacy the company had fought tooth and nail to create for over half a century.
These crashes were a culmination of the continued ignorance and greed on the part of Boeing, combined with a corrupt management system and a pure profit-maximising attitude. Over the last two decades, Boeing has behaved unethically and risked the lives of millions of passengers each year. A company that used to held in the highest esteem in the aerospace industry is now known for its lack of safety and quality.
2 months after the crash of Flight 302, then CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg was asked to step down by the board of directors. The United States Department of Justice sued Boeing with trying to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration. Boeing settled this lawsuit with a sum of $237.5 million which now protects Bowing from any further criminal prosecution related to the 737 crashes. They compensated every victim's family with a sum of $146,00 which adds up to a total of $50 million for 346 families. Additionally, the FAA has revamped some of its legislation giving it increased oversight over the manufacture and quality checking of new airplanes.
In November 2020, the FAA renewed its approval for the 737 Max to take to the skies, and until now, there have been no major incidents reported.