A new book explains the tragic failure of Boeing’s 737 MAX

Flying Blindness: The Tragedy of the 737 Max and the Fall of Boeing. Written by Peter Robson. Double Day 336 Pages $30. penguin business; £20

safter a short time The pilots of two Boeing 737 planes took off, while they were flashing and issuing various alarms the aboveOne operated by the Philippine company Lion Air and the other by Ethiopian Airlines – wrestling with steering wheel to control their planes. Neither of them overcame the part of the program they were intent on taking over; 346 people died in the two accidents caused by the accident in 2018 and 2019. As Boeing finally admitted on November 10 this year, in a compensation case filed by families of crash victims in Ethiopia in America, the reason was that it had built a plane with an “unsafe condition”.

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The long chain of events that led to tragedies – and the subsequent financial and reputational ruin of one of America’s largest companies – is expertly dissected in “Flying Blind” by Bloomberg journalist Peter Robison. His main argument will be familiar to anyone who has followed Boeing closely. After its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas, stock market performance and investor satisfaction took precedence over engineering excellence.

The arrival of bean stat heads from a former competitor, as well as a succession of CEOs educated in the art of financial engineering at General Electric, another American industrial giant, ensured that a “bottom line mentality” prevailed. In rich detail, Robson chronicles the shortcomings of this approach in a company where safety must be paramount. It lists the regulatory takeover of the Federal Aviation Authority (Little), which allowed Boeing to take a leadership role in certifying the airworthiness of its planes, even as it was locked in a fierce sales battle with European Airbus. Balancing shareholder returns, competitiveness, and investment is a difficult task for any company. Boeing got the equation badly wrong.

It was thinking of designing a new clean sheet for its lucrative short-term column when in 2010 Airbus announced a320neo, a more fuel-efficient version of its competition aircraft. Rather than cede market share for several years during the development of a new passenger plane, Boeing chose to fit new engines for the 737. But attaching giant turboprops to an aircraft that first began flight in 1967 with much smaller power units has shifted its center of gravity. The MCAS The system, which is intended to counter this effect in extreme conditions with anti-stall control, deserved one mention in the 1,600-page aircraft manual—in the glossary.

In both collisions, a small sensor error caused this system to operate – which the pilots were unaware of – but under normal conditions. Finding a way to regain full control of the plane meant going through an inch-thick pamphlet in confusion and desperation for the last few minutes in the cockpit of the convicts. the aboves. Although some Boeing engineers have raised concerns, MCAS Signed by compatible Little, to avoid the need for expensive retraining in the flight simulator. to fly the abovePilots trained on the previous generation of 737s were only required to spend a few hours on an iPad.

Boeing’s reaction also betrayed its priorities. After the second crash, the planes were grounded, but the company continued to build them, indicating that a quick fix was imminent, and hinting that the pilots were to blame (the latest court ruling acquits the Ethiopian crew). The dispute came slowly. In fact, the grounding went on for 20 months, as the pandemic hit, tripping airlines and leading to hundreds of orders being cancelled.

The crisis has so far cost Boeing $21 billion in direct fines and compensation to airlines for delayed delivery. Compensation for bereaved families has not yet been completed. Until now the above Now it’s back in the air with a backlog of 3,000 orders from airlines clamoring for more fuel-efficient planes. The Ministry of Justice’s investigation into what it called “737 the above The fraud plot “resulted in only one postponed trial (a sort of company endorsement deal). An unnamed pilot suggests a different nickname for Mr. Robson: “Boeing got away with it.”

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the heading “Plane Error”

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