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Boeing's Doomed 737 Max's
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I don’t like flying. I consider it unnatural, unhealthy and fraught with peril. But I do it all the time. For me, it’s either fly or take an ox cart.

In fact, I’ve been flying since I was six years old – from New York to Paris on a lumbering Boeing Stratocruiser, a converted, double-decker WWII B-29 heavy bomber. I even had a sleeping berth. So much for progress.

Lots can go wrong in the air. Modern aircraft have thousands of obscure parts. If any one of them malfunctions, the aircraft can be crippled or crash. Add pilot error, dangerous weather, air traffic control mistakes, mountains where they are not supposed to be, air to air collisions, sabotage and hijacking.

I vividly recall flying over the snow-capped Alps in the late 1940’s aboard an old Italian three-motor airliner with its port engine burning, and the Italian crew panicking and crossing themselves.

Some years ago, I was on my way to Egypt when we were hijacked by a demented Ethiopian. A three day ordeal ensued that included a return flight to New York City from Germany, with the gunman threatening to crash the A-310 jumbo jet into Wall Street – a grim precursor of 9/11. My father, Henry Margolis, got off a British Comet airliner just before it blew up due to faulty windows.

Which brings me to the current Boeing crisis. After a brand new Boeing 737 Max crashed in Indonesia it seemed highly likely that there was a major problem in its new, invisible autopilot system, known as MCAS. All 737 Max’s flying around the world should have been grounded as a precaution. But America’s aviation authority, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), allowed the Max to keep flying. The FAA is half regulator and half aviation business promoter, a clear conflict of interest.

The crash of a new Ethiopian 737 Max outside Addis Ababa under very similar circumstances to the Lion Air accident set off alarm bells around the globe. Scores of airlines rightly grounded their new Max’s. But the US and Canada did not. The FAA continued to insist the aircraft was sound. The problem, it was hinted between the lines, was incompetent third world pilots.

It now appears that America’s would-be emperor, Pilot-in–Chief Donald Trump, may have pressed the FAA to keep the 737 Max’s in the air. Canada, always shy when it comes to disagreeing with Washington, kept the 737 Max’s flying until there was a lot of evidence linking the Indonesia and Ethiopian crashes.

Trump finally ordered the suspect aircraft grounded. But doing so was not his business. That’s the job of the FAA. But Trump, as usual, wanted to hog the limelight.
By now, the 737 Max ban is just about universal.

ORDER IT NOW

Interestingly, Ethiopia refused to hand over the crashed 737’s black boxes (actually they are red) to the FAA, as is normal with US-built aircraft. Instead, Addis Ababa sent the data boxes for analysis to BEA, France’s well-regarded aviation accident investigator. Clearly, Ethiopia lacks confidence in the veracity and impartiality of the FAA and the White House.

Today, Trump professes vivid interest in Boeing’s well-being. Last May, however, Trump cancelled an Iranian order to Boeing for $20 billion in airliners which had originally been signed under the Obama administration. Israel’s fingerprints were all over this cancellation. Iran desperately needs new aircraft to replace its fleet of decaying, 1960’s passenger aircraft that have become flying coffins.

Boeing (I am a shareholder) will recover from this disaster unless the 737 Max’s center of gravity is dangerously unstable. The mystery autopilot system will be reconfigured and pilots properly trained to use it. Air France had a similar problem when it introduced the new A320. But Boeing, not third world pilots, is at fault.

There’s another key factor. I’ve been writing for decades that passenger aircraft should return to the three-man crew they had 40-50 years ago. The position of flight engineer was supposedly eliminated by cockpit automation. Today, aircraft are so electronically complex they need a specialist on board who can deal with problems. Pilots should not be expected to be masters of computer technology. A third crew member is essential when things go wrong. But employing one costs money. It seems rock-bottom fares remain more important than safety.

(Republished from EricMargolis.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Boeing 
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  1. Alistair says:

    Amid the 737-Max crisis management, I liked, the Canadian transport minister, Marc Garneau’s press conference who announced the grounding of the 737-Max fleet in Canada.

    Mr. Marc Garneau is perhaps the only politician in the world who has real expertise on the matter of Aviation and Advanced Aircrafts Technology. He is a scientist, a retired Astronaut and a military jet pilot who was part of the NASA’s STS-97 mission to the ISS in 2000.

    During his proud space career, captain Marc Garneau flew advanced aircrafts for NASA and CSA, yet, not wanting to embarrass the Trump Administration who didn’t recognize the safety concerns of the Boeing 737-Max – Mr. Garneau reluctantly delayed his decision to ground the 737-Max fleet until the very last minutes – so, putting thousands of passengers lives at risk; what a shame when experts have to hold on the scientific evidence for the sake of pleasing the narcissistic politicians in Washington, DC.

    Yet, my cynical mind thinks even worse; perhaps, these planes were sabotaged by Boeing themselves, as they were originally destined for delivery to Iran Air, but due to Trump’s cancellations of the Iranian order, Boeing sold them instead to Ethiopia and Indonesia, sorry for my cynicism; I can’t help it when politics and big business interests get mixed up.

    Yet, it’s reassuring to have authorities like Marc Garneau in charge of the Air transportation safety, Canadians should be proud and appreciate his services to Canada. You can read his Bio here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Garneau

  2. @Alistair

    Yet, my cynical mind thinks even worse; perhaps, these planes were sabotaged by Boeing themselves, as they were originally destined for delivery to Iran Air, but due to Trump’s cancellations of the Iranian order, Boeing sold them instead to Ethiopia and Indonesia, sorry for my cynicism; I can’t help it when politics and big business interests get mixed up.

    I think I am as cynical as almost anyone about US Big business or Big business in general, but I do not buy this idea. The damage done to Boeing’s reputation by these two crashes is so severe that I cannot imagine that they would have sold planes that they knew were going to crash sooner rather than later. It does not make bottom-line sense. (Tell me that the CIA did it and I might think about it.)

    As the problem seemed, in the case of the Lion Air crash, to be with a non-functioning pitot tube, I wonder that they did not think about backing it up or replacing it with some other type of anaemometer (hot-wire or windmill come to mind, or piezo-resistive or piezo-electric pressure sensors, based on strain gauges, at strategic points in the wings). It should be possible to make such sensors fail-safe or at any rate vastly more reliable than a pitot tube which can get blocked.

    • Replies: @Alistair
  3. Alistair says:
    @foolisholdman

    I agree, Boeing is hurting now only because their MAX-8 planes are grounded worldwide.
    But if they could have just put the blame on the pilot or the maintenance crew, they would have been exonerated and continued their business as usual.

    I’m not an expert, but it appears the root cause of the both accidents were conflicting instructions to the plane from the Onboard computer, so, essentially, it was software related deficiencies that both pilots so desperately tried to correct “manually”. such flight software could be remotely controlled, overwritten, or clocked to run erratically after a certain time.

    If Iranians government would have taken delivery of these planes, and crashed them after a few months of operation, the world have put the entire blame on the pilot and poor maintenance. Boeing would not had needed to ground the planes. After all, there are more than 270, MAX-8 planes in service now, only two had fatal accident, and both crashes were in the developing countries with poor track records in Air travel safety.

    I don’t really know, but sabotaging seems a perfectly conceivable balancing strategy in the new cold war era, and Boeing is a US based company with closed ties to the US Government – their largest client.

  4. dearieme says:

    “Boeing, not third world pilots, is at fault.” A couple of times recently USN vessels have been in collision with merchant vessels. From the initial reports it was quite clear that the cause was overwhelmingly likely to be rotten seamanship by the USN officers concerned. But blog comment threads were immediately full of juvenile rubbish about the Russkies or the Chinks and their vile hacking.

  5. fenestol says:

    I am a shareholder

    Shame on you. Boeing still gets 33% of its revenues from military and space sales.

  6. MBlanc46 says:

    So Trump controls the air. Master of all he surveys.

  7. It now appears that America’s would-be emperor, Pilot-in–Chief Donald Trump, may have pressed the FAA to keep the 737 Max’s in the air.

    Well, that’s me convinced.

  8. Matra says:

    It now appears that America’s would-be emperor, Pilot-in–Chief Donald Trump, may have pressed the FAA to keep the 737 Max’s in the air.

    You just made that up, didn’t you Eric?

  9. Biff says:

    Air France had a similar problem when it introduced the new A320.

    You can’t be serious?

  10. anon1 says:
    @Alistair

    Of course he got a boost from Ottawa by being a French-Canadian.

  11. DCBillS says:

    I have been told by an airline captain that 737’s have a manual override that a competent pilot should have used to correct the problem. It is mechanical and cuts the electronics out of the loop. Don’t underrate the third world pilot factor.

    • Replies: @By-tor
  12. By-tor says:
    @DCBillS

    Here’s what actually transpired:

    “They were building the airplane and still designing it,” Bowen said. “The data to build a simulator didn’t become available until about when the plane was ready to fly,” said Greg Bowen of the Southwest pilots association.

    According to the NYT, a group of pilots who studied the new model without actually flying it compiled a 13-page guide on differences between the 737 MAX and its predecessor, but it did not mention the new anti-stall software — the one that is in the focus of the ongoing investigations into recent crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia.

    The training also included a two-hour iPad course from Boeing.

    After the Lion Air crash in late October, Boeing officials promised to fix software within several weeks, but doubled down on their claims that pilots did not need additional training.

    https://sputniknews.com/us/201903171073319355-pilots-were-given-ipad-course-to-learn-about-boeing-max-jets-reports/

  13. tigerpaw says:
    @Alistair

    During his proud space career, captain Marc Garneau flew advanced aircrafts for NASA and CSA, yet, not wanting to embarrass the Trump Administration who didn’t recognize the safety concerns of the Boeing 737-Max – Mr. Garneau reluctantly delayed his decision to ground the 737-Max fleet until the very last minutes – so, putting thousands of passengers lives at risk; what a shame when experts have to hold on the scientific evidence for the sake of pleasing the narcissistic politicians in Washington, DC.
    — What a shame ,Marc Garneau, is still he minister,; passengers lives are not important to him

  14. pontius says:

    If it weren’t for the dead passengers I’d be indulging in a little schadenfreude related to Boeing’s attempts to have the C-Series tariffed to death. They blew that one big time and probably cost themselves any new defense business in Canada for a few decades.

  15. jsinton says:

    I read an interesting set of tweets. It was from an aerospace engineer who said it was really an airframe problem. To save money and make maintenece easy, Boeing wanted to make a bigger 737, instead of designing a new aircraft. When they stretched the fuselage and wanted more efficiency, they created a need for much bigger engines that wouldn’t fit under the wing. They couldn’t make the landing gear taller, so they did the only other thing possible to make the airframe work with the changes: they moved the engines forward and up. This created a whole new set of aerodynamics problems, essentially making the plane out of “balance”. They compensated for having the plane aerodynamically out of balance with modifying software, thus the reason everyone is blaming the software. But it’s really an airframe problem.

    • Replies: @Voltara
  16. “Yet, my cynical mind thinks even worse; perhaps, these planes were sabotaged by Boeing themselves, as they were originally destined for delivery to Iran Air, but due to Trump’s cancellations of the Iranian order, Boeing sold them instead to Ethiopia and Indonesia, sorry for my cynicism; I can’t help it when politics and big business interests get mixed up.”

    Nonsense. There’s no upside for Boeing any time one of their aircraft crashes. This is just good old oligarch greed: Boeing radically changed the airframe to put more efficient engines on it, substantially altering the flying characteristics, but still called it a 737 to go through far less testing and certification and their costs; FAA, being captive regulators, let them get away with it. Airlines loved the savings on fuel and training.

    It would seem there is plenty of blame to go around, but the root cause is the passengers, who insist on rock-bottom airfares that make it increasingly challenging for CEOs to pocket their stratospheric pay and perks all up and down the line of keeping people moving. Why do you think the governments of the world are making travel so unpleasant? Because they want to dissuade the most price-sensitive customers from travelling altogether.

    Too callous to blame passengers? OK, let’s pin it on a dead guy: Sorry, Juan Tripp, RIP, but you are to blame for bringing cheap travel to the masses.

  17. Voltara says:
    @jsinton

    Very interesting analysis which fits the available facts. Thank you

  18. KenH says:

    There was a good article by “Sully” in The Daily Mail where he pointed out that U.S. pilots must fly 1500 hours to get certified on an aircraft (such as a 777 or A330) while Ethiopia only mandates 200 hours of flight time. This is critical as 200 hours are too few for the pilot to have worked worked through problems like inclement weather, system malfunctions, etc., and to become proficient in all of the aircraft’s systems.

    So while some of features of the 737 MAX are arguably sub-optimal, both crashes to date have occured in the third world, so at this point it would seem under trained pilots by Ethiopia and other third world nations accounts for one of the root causes of this crash and the Indonesian crash.

    • Agree: Jett Rucker
  19. Jett Rucker says: • Website

    rock-bottom fares remain more important than safety

    Now there’s a cheap shot if I ever read one.

    Here’s my own.

    The safest thing to do is stay on the ground. If you need to fly, low fares make it possible, while high fares make it impossible, as they did for so many years (unless you were a rich kid, as Eric Margolis obviously was). Unfortunately low fares and high safety are implacable enemies. They must forever be traded against each other.

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