March 16, 2019

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.

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.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2019

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7 Responses to “BOEING’S DOOMED 737 MAX’S”

  1. New information from CNN…
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    https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/22/politics/boeing-737-manual/index.html
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    New evidence has surfaced that Boeing told its commercial airline customers that the 737 MAX was fundamentally similar to previous versions of the workhorse jet, despite the addition of a stability system investigators are scrutinizing in probes of the Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes.
    The planes are so similar, the sales pitch went, that airlines could avoid extensive and costly training for pilots who flew earlier versions of the 737.
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    Looking worse for Boeing…
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    Dik

  2. “I don’t like flying. I consider it unnatural, unhealthy and fraught with peril.” From one of your recent articles, it looks like the Kim shares your concern. “For me, it’s either fly or take an ox cart.” Train mode is likely faster, and more environmentally friendly (even oxen are CO2 emitters).
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    “…it seemed highly likely that there was a major problem in its new, invisible autopilot system, known as MCAS.” Der Spiegel, in typical Germanic fashion, had an excellent explanation of what the problem likely was. Catch the link:
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/what-s-wrong-with-the-boeing-737-max-8-a-1257608.html
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    The Boeing engineers tried to modify the 737, one more time. It used to be that aircraft manufacturers would design a specific model; this would be put through a series of rigourous tests prior to certification. The manufacturers would modify this basic model and have it re-certified. Testing was circumvented because it was only a modificaiton. Because the modifications were not deemed significant, the rigourous testing was not required. I don’t know if this is the case with the 737, but, it would be interesting to determine which model was last thoroughly tested. It might be the original 737-100. News reporters seem to have missed this item.
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    The mods for the new model were such that they had an impact on the flying characteristics. From der Spiegel article, “The engineers who were performing all of these miracles of rejuvenation knew full well that they were making compromises they never would have tolerated in a newer model. The consequences of that corner-cutting may now be revealing themselves.
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    The engine would be powered by a very fuel-efficient engine known as Leap, made by the company CFM. Boeing’s rival, Airbus, had also equipped its well-selling A320neo with the same propulsion hardware. One of the reasons the Leap engine is so economical is because its air intake has an enormous diameter: 198 centimeters (6.5 feet)…the landing gear on Boeing’s Max 8 is short, limiting ground clearance under the wings. The engine simply doesn’t fit…Boeing’s star engineers came up with the idea of shortening the engine mount structure, which fastens the heavy engines to the underside of the wings. This did the trick, but it came at the cost of seriously altering the aircraft’s flight mechanics. As a result, the Max 8 tended to dangerously raise its nose. Under certain circumstances — rare and extreme, to be sure, yet possible nonetheless — there was a greater chance of the plane stalling and even crashing. Boeing engineers, in turn, came up with another makeshift solution. They developed a software that would work in the background. As soon as the nose of the aircraft pointed upward too steeply, the system would automatically activate the tailplane and bring the aircraft back to a safe cruising plane. The pilots wouldn’t even notice the software’s intervention — at least that was the idea. In fact, Boeing didn’t even consider it necessary to inform pilots about the newfangled MCAS, or “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System.”
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    If this is substantiated, Boeing may be in for a ‘pile of heartburn’.
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    “The FAA is half regulator and half aviation business promoter, a clear conflict of interest.” This pales in comparison to the corrupt donation system for political parties, where firms can ‘buy their way out’ of trouble. It is not known how many million$ have been donated to the Republican party by Boeing; news reporters always seem to avoid the interesting questions. ‘Big News’ has either ‘dummed them down’ or the education system has failed them.
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    Anonymous donation should be implemented. Based on ‘passed track record’ it could be that the Donald applied some suasion to the FAA to keep the craft in the air, at least for a few more days. Canada was able to hold off for a couple of days, but eventually grounded the 737s. Your comment that, ‘Trump, as usual, wanted to hog the limelight’ is just so Donald.
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    It is interesting to know that Ethiopia refused to hand over the ‘bright orange or red boxes’ to the FAA and instead sent them to the French BEA. There seems to be a growing global mistrust of Americans.
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    The American cancellation of the Boeing order for Iran is just another example of financial ‘bullying’ by the Americans. I’m not sure it’s as easy as placing an order for an Airbus replacement. I’m sure Airbus would welcome the new business. Americans have to be a little concerned about the growing strength and autonomy of the European Union.
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    As an engineer, I know it is not prudent to rely on to ‘makeshift items’ provide safety for what may be an unstable system; the design problems should be ‘fixed’ not ‘accommodated’. I concur, with the complexity of new aircraft, the flight engineer position should never have been eliminated.
    .
    Dik

    • “Based on ‘passed track record’ should read, “Based on ‘past track record’” and “it was only a modificaiton should read”, “it was only a modificaton”
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      ‘Cerebral flatus’ setting in with advancing years.
      .
      Dik

  3. When I see the stories on the grounding I am reminded of the airman’s saying “It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than being in the air wishing you were on the ground. ”
    For me the real embarrassment as a Canadian was seeing our transport minister basically saying they were waiting for America’s permission to ground the planes.

  4. Yes, planes can go down but I think one is far more likely to contract some disease while standing in line for hours or sitting in close proximity to hundreds of other people.

    I was on a turboprop flight from the UK to Canada (or the other way) when I was 3. I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out the window to see the hot exhaust gasses coming of the engines as flames in the dark.

    I stood up on my seat and yelled “The plane’s on fire!” at the top of my lungs into the darkened cabin. Lucky they didn’t have a no-fly list in those days.

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