The Boeing 737 MAX 8: What is the issue?
-By Heather McDonald
On 10th March 2019, a barely four-month-old Boeing 737 max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines, with 157 people on board took off from Bole International airport in the Ethiopian capital Addis-Ababa destined for Nairobi Kenya. In what was expected to be about a 2 hours flight ended in a crash only six minutes later killing all 157 passengers and crew.
This came just months after yet another brand new Boeing 737 max 8 operated by Lion Air from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang in Indonesia crashed into the Java sea barely 12 minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. It was the worst aviation accident in Lion Air’s 18-year history. Preliminary findings after investigations indicated flight control problems and instrument failures.
It’s quite easy to note how eerily similar the two accidents are. Both involve new Boeing 737 max 8 jets and both happen just minutes after takeoff. This narrow-body aircraft has already sadly taken away 346 lives since its launch on May 22nd, 2017. The plane is currently the most important jet for Boeing as it marks Boeing’s response to the Airbus A320 NEO which has allowed the European manufacturer to beat Boeing in the single-aisle niche.
Both Boeing 737 max 8 planes have crashed within weeks of leaving the Boeing’s factories and had no prior indication of any structural defects. More than 40 countries have since grounded the Boeing 737 max 8 aircraft pending further investigations.
Here are some of the issues currently under scrutiny.
Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS)
The 737 max 8 has heavier and more fuel-efficient engines which in comparison to the previous models, have been installed higher and further forward. These changes can result in an upward pitching moment in certain maneuvers leading to stalling.
To counter these effects and pass part 25 certification requirements, Boeing equipped the Max 8 with MCAS; a software program that automatically pushes the nose down when the plane is turning steeply or is in flaps-retracted, low-speed, nose-up flight.
Sensors mounted outside the aircraft monitor the airspeed and altitude of the plane, and Incase the sensors detect that the angle of attack has exceeded a certain limit, the MCAS system activates without notice to the pilot and automatically takes corrective measures.
The Angle of Attack Sensors (AOA)
AOA is the angle formed between the wing chord line and the direction of air flowing past the wing. An AOA sensor provides a visual indication of the amount of lift the wing is generating at a given airspeed or angle of bank. Reliable and precise measurement of AOA from takeoff to landing improves aircraft performance and safety.
The AOA sensor is a small blade that sticks out from the cockpit and records the planes angles during flights. It is crucial to obtain accurate AOA data in all environmental conditions so as to maintain both safety and performance of the aircraft.
According to investigators of the Lions Air crash, the AOA sensor malfunctioned rendering flawed data to the aircraft’s computers; indicating that the plane was climbing more sharply than it actually was.
As a result, the MCAS kept kicking in and the plane kept going into a dive for no apparent reason. The pilots kept counteracting by pulling back on the control column only for the MCAS to kick in again after 10 seconds. This back and forth battle between the aircraft’s software and the pilot happened 26 times before the pilots finally lost control leading to the crash.
A search on the Aviation safety reporting system (ASRS), a reporting platform for pilots and other personnel shows that the Boeing anti-stall system was engaged at least on two previous occasions after pilots had turned on the autopilot. Pilots had voiced concerns months prior to the Ethiopian Airlines disaster.
After the Lions Air crash, Boeing 737 max 8 pilots have expressed outrage that Boeing has failed to adequately educate them about the MCAS software program and its operation. An incident reporting database by NASA has had multiple reports made by Max 8 pilots about the plane nose diving shortly after takeoff.
In another pilot complaint, the max 8 manuals were referred to as “criminally insufficient”. For instance, the steps required to override the MCAS system are not in the manual and pilots are not trained on them. The pilots were simply not aware of the extent of the plane’s automation.
A wrongful death lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County Illinois against Boeing. The lawsuit is by the Lion Airs crash co-pilot’s family and was filed on behalf of the co-pilot’s widow and their three children. It alleges that Boeing failed to properly disclose information on its new automated flight-control system to the pilots thereby making the planes dangerous to operate.
Another lawsuit was filed against Boeing by families of 17 victims killed in the max 8 crash in Indonesia. The lawsuit filed by Herrmann Law Group, a Seattle based law firm alleges that crucial equipment aboard the aircraft failed and the company did little to prepare the pilots for the potential dangers of the new automated system installed in the max 8.
The subject matter for both lawsuits seems to be Boeing intentionally withholding information about their new automated systems from airlines and pilots. The system was installed in the new jets without adequately notifying client airlines nor proper pilot training.
After the recent Ethiopian Airlines crash, it’s more than likely that more lawsuits will follow against the Chicago based aircraft manufacturer.
FAA 737 Max Fleet Grounding
Daniel Elwell, the acting FAA administrator made the decision to ground the 737 max fleet after viewing flight data provided by Aireon; a company that uses satellite networks to provide real-time surveillance of aircraft.
Aieron uses data it gathers from a system called ADS-B. Planes are required to use GPRS to monitor their position and broadcast details such as Altitude, Position, and Speed to Air traffic controllers on the ground. The transmissions gives a real-time picture of the airspace.
The FAA has grounded Airliners in the past; in 2013, it grounded the 787-Dreamliner soon after its introduction because of onboard Lithium battery fires. In 1979, it grounded the DC-10 airplane after a crash that killed 273 passengers and crew, the worst airplane disaster in US history.
After the Ethiopian Airlines crash, aviation authorities in the United States have joined the rest of the world in grounding the 737 Max fleet. The FAA said that new evidence indicates similarities between the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the Lions Air disaster in Indonesia a few months prior.
All eyes are now on Boeing and Investigations have started to determine whether the crashes are connected and whether there is something systematically wrong with the Boeing 737 aircraft line.
The two crashes have dented Boeings reputation and raised concerns about Boeing’s commitment to improving their safety standards. Boeing is an American industrial flagship that manufactures among other planes the Air force one; the US Presidents official aircraft, Fighter jets like the F15 and other Aerospace equipment.
In addition to over 150,000 Boeing employees, direct and indirect suppliers may be facing huge losses if orders are canceled. Some of the suppliers include United Technologies, General Electrics, Safran and Spirit Aero Systems.
Boeings shares fell by more than 7 percent after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, losing the company nearly $ 27 billion in market capitalization. If the two crashes were indeed caused by the software flaws, they will be cheaper to rectify since Boeing will only have to roll out updates to the flight control software and the flight manual already in use.
On the other hand, if the causes are structural, this could be a nightmare scenario for Boeing as it may involve major overhauls, repairs, and compensation leading to losses in the billions of Dollars.
What does the recent Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crash mean for the aviation industry?
It is apparent that Boeing failed to provide adequate information and training on the automation systems they had added to the max 8 aircraft. This rendered the pilots unable to deal with the effects of the automatic system in case of an emergency.
The reasons for withholding such crucial information are not clear but Boeing could be forced to make big changes in the way they handle the flow of information to their clients.
It is likely that the two crashes could make it mandatory for Boeing and other Aircraft manufactures in the future to provide adequate information and training programs to their clients on new systems they introduce to the market.
In this case, Boeing could be forced to introduce a training program for pilots and first officers operating Boeing jets equipped with their MCAS systems. They may also be required to issue updated operating procedures to use in the event these systems malfunction.
The Ethiopian Airline crash will further shine the light on global civil Aviation governing bodies and how they handle such situations. For instance, America’s FAA has been criticized in the past for its handling of issues associated with new airplane technology such as the 787-Dreamliner battery fire incidences of 2013, and has also been criticized again for being reluctant to ground the Max 8 in America.
Whether or not this measures will bring back passenger confidence in the Boeing planes is yet to be seen but it is clear something needs to be done. Aircraft manufacturers, Civil aviation governing bodies and the airlines need to work together to guarantee safer air travel.