Ground the 737 MAX. Or Not?

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I suspect if you walked around the back of 800 Independence Ave. in Washington, you’d find a tanker truck of Maalox with two-inch lines running into the C-suites upstairs. The political pressure on the top echelon must be like nothing else we’ve seen in quite a while.

While the rest of the world rushes to ground the troubled Boeing 737 MAX 8, the FAA is standing its ground, but by the time you read this, it may have caved or negotiated some kind of feel-good compromise in the wake of the second accident the aircraft type has suffered in barely five months.

The logic of grounding the airplane is both irrefutable and aviation cognitive dissonance at its best. In the modern era of certification, when the U.S. airline accident rate is functionally zero, two accidents of the same new type in five months is not just a five-alarm fire, it’s the aviation equivalent of Mt. St. Helens. It’s delusional to think such a turn of events is just the inevitable ebb and flow of the probabilities. Modern data-based system safety has stamped out much of the variability that made some accidents inevitable. Too bad this isn’t applied universally around the world.

On the other hand, for those countries grounding the MAX, what are they waiting for that would unground it? Perhaps a certification review by the FAA? Some admission by Boeing that it has found a heretofore unrecognized fault in the airplane? The company is basically adhering to the claim that the aircraft is perfectly safe, even as it releases software revisions to the oft-discussed MCAS autotrim system.

Meanwhile, Aunt Martha is so briefed up on the system, she might be phoning airlines to learn if the airplane she’s about to board for Chicago has the AoA software for the PFD and the new bulletins for sensor calibration and maintenance and, by the way, any squawks? More dissonance accrues from people canceling trips when the MAX is ramp side, which is an example of rational irrationality, if there is such a thing.

Meanwhile, I’d get on a MAX, no sweat, as long as it’s flown by a U.S. airline. And I probably will later this month when I fly out to Palm Springs for AEA on Southwest. Recognizing full well that there’s always a chance that there’s something wrong with the MAX that even experienced pilots haven’t recognized and couldn’t handle, I also think the likelihood of that being true is so remote that I wouldn’t think about it longer than it took for the FA to take my drink order. (Coke Zero, please.)

I’ve been corresponding with a couple of pilots who fly the MAX and my impression—shared by others—is that it’s like an aeronautical Baldwin 4-8-2 with a digital stoker. Switch that off, and you’re instantly whisked back to 1969. In other words, it has a thin veneer of digital technology—much of it opaquely applied to the engines—but flip the trim cutouts and there’s precious little between your muscles and the control surfaces. That does mean you have to fly it, but these things happen.

As the MAX crisis reaches white-hot frenzy, we’re entering into terra incognita. You have to reach back into the 1970s for a relevant example and it’s not very relevant. Remember the cargo door problem on the DC-10? The Windsor incident was the shaft Canary, the Paris crash set in motion the fix and a torrent of lawsuits. They were nearly two years apart. Before that and before 1200-channel flight data recorders, there was the Lockheed Electra. Two hull losses—six months apart—and smart guys with slide rules were reminded of something called whirl-mode flutter. Maybe the MAX engineers are in line for a reminder of some sort, too, but I wouldn't bet on that. More likely, the sales force will rethink how it markets the airplanes.

One thing I would like to see happen is a faster investigation process that can at least focus on immediate solutions while the longer-term awaits. The Lion Air crash happened in October, a little over four months ago. Both recorders have been recovered and analyzed. I’m sure Boeing has the flick on where that investigation is, but how about regulators and the airlines they oversee? Would knowing more allow these operators to make a more informed decision when grounding airplanes or amending training? Just a thought.

Unless that happens and even if it does, I think the FAA will ultimately have to ground the MAX for some period. I can’t see how the political pressure to do so won’t become irresistible. Boeing probably set the table for this when it loosed the airplane into the market without adequate documentation on the MCAS add-on. It didn't bury knowledge of the system, so much as downplay it to minimize the training load against archcompetitor Airbus. Even the talking heads on CNN have abandoned their usual professional deference to wait-and-see.

Meanwhile, I have a theory on the Lion Air crash. I think the airline dispatched a broken airplane and dealt the pilots, who may not have been well-trained, a hand they couldn’t play. Maybe Ethiopian Airlines is a replay, maybe it isn’t. But if it's true that they put a 200-hour First Officer in the right seat, that's simply not the same level of system safety we expect for 10-9 probability. I don't care how good the ab initio training is, a pilot with that little experience may be more hindrance than help in an emergency.

When the history of these two accidents is written, I won't be suprised if Boeing somehow managed to get the MAX into a crack between go-go competition with Airbus and the training and cultural limitations of foreign airlines. Benefit-of-the-doubt grounding and "an abundance of caution" may make the airplane a victim for the wrong reasons. And maybe I’m suffering delusional chauvinism in thinking the pilots who are still flying this airplane in the U.S. are confident they can handle what it throws at them.