The real reason Boeing’s new plane crashed twice


This is an airplane engine. It’s sitting in a field in Bishoftu, Ethiopia—
part of the wreckage of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed on March 10, 2019. 157 people died. This was just a few months after another flight,
Lion Air 610, crashed in Indonesia and killed 189 people. These two flights were operating the same
plane: The Boeing 737 MAX 8. And its engine is the key to understanding
why this particular plane has caused so many problems. But there’s nothing actually wrong with this
engine. In fact, airplane manufacturers raced to put
them on their new planes. That’s where the problem started. The two biggest airplane manufacturers in
the world are Airbus and Boeing. And they have a fierce rivalry. If one of them can offer a better plane, the
other could lose a lot of money. That’s exactly what was about to happen in
2010. Airbus announced that they would update their
most popular model, the A320, a single-aisle airplane that services many domestic flights. You’ve probably been on one. For this new plane, Airbus had a big update. It would have a new kind of engine. It was much larger than the previous engine, but it would make the plane 15 percent
more fuel efficient. And just as importantly, this upgrade wouldn’t
change the plane that much. A pilot could walk into the new model, with
little additional training, and be on their way. It was called the A320 NEO, and it would save
airlines a lot of money. This was a problem for Boeing. To compete with Airbus, Boeing’s obvious move
was to upgrade the engine on their single-aisle plane, the 737. But there was one issue. Here’s a sketch of the 737 next to the Airbus
A320. Notice how the 737 is lower to the ground
than the A320. This meant Airbus could slide a new engine
under the wing of their A320. But there wasn’t enough room under the wing
of the Boeing 737. But a few months later, Boeing’s product development
head had big news. He said: “We figured out a way to get a big
enough engine under the wing.” Their solution was to move up the engine on
the wing, so that it would be slightly higher and it would fit on their 737s. Here’s a promotional video of that updated
737 in the air. You can actually see that the top of the engine
is above the wing. Boeing called this model the 737 MAX. And just like Airbus with the A320, Boeing
said their new plane was so similar to its predecessor that pilots would only need minimal
additional training. The 737 MAX became the hottest selling plane
on the market. And it helped Boeing keep up with AirBus. Except, moving the engine up on the 737
had a side effect. When the 737 MAX was in full thrust, like
during takeoff, the nose tended to point too far upward, which could lead to a stall. This was a problem, because these planes were
supposed to behave exactly like the old ones. So Boeing came up with a workaround. Instead of re-engineering the plane, they
installed software that automatically pushed the nose downward if the pilot flew the plane
at too high of an angle. They called it the Maneuvering Characteristics
Augmentation System, or MCAS. But because Boeing was selling the 737 MAX
as pretty much the same plane as the 737, they didn’t highlight the new MCAS system. Many pilots only got a two-hour iPad course
before entering the cockpit for the first time. And the “training material did not mention”
the MCAS software. In 2018, several American pilots complained
to the federal government that the 737 MAX was “suddenly nosing down.” On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 took
off from Jakarta. In the flight report, which shows the plane’s
altitude over time, you can see that the plane was in full thrust during takeoff. But at a certain point, the nose of the plane
kept lurching downward. The pilots couldn’t figure out why this was
happening. The captain “asked the first officer to check
the quick reference handbook.” They couldn’t find the solution. The pilots continued to fight with the MCAS. The plane struggled to gain altitude. Reports show it was likely because the computer
was getting incorrect sensor data, pushing the plane toward the earth below. 12 minutes after takeoff, the plane crashed
into the Java Sea. In the Ethiopia crash, the report shows that
the pilots were actually able to disable the MCAS, but it was too late to overcome the
malfunctioning MCAS sensors. For now, nearly every 737 MAX 8 in service
has been grounded. And the Federal Aviation Administration is
facing scrutiny over how they rushed this plane through certification. Boeing’s response has been to apply a software
update and make the MCAS “less aggressive,” while also saying they’ll increase pilot training
on how to turn it off. This problem started with a company’s race
to compete with its rival. It pushed them to pretend like their new plane
behaved exactly like their old one. Even when it didn’t.

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About the Author: Oren Garnes

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