A question of Safety or Ethics: Boeing 737

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Two accidents of the Boeing flagship aircraft in the 1990s and lawsuits awarding damages worth USD 25.5 million reveal shocking truths about the Boeing Company. The Seattle Times reported the company’s long-standing awareness of the rudder’s propensity to deflect on its own. What’s more, the papers released by the court show Boeing discovered in the early 1980s, that there was little pilots could do to recover from some rogue deflections, yet failed to point out the significance of that finding to safety regulators and airlines.

Boeing insists it did nothing wrong, and everything was done as was required to by federal safety regulations.

In a report released in 2014, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found plenty of blame to go around when reviewing a lithium-ion battery fire inside a 787 Dreamliner passenger aircraft in January 2013.

The board’s report in particular singles out the plane’s manufacturer (Boeing), its contracted battery supplier (GS Yuasa), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as falling short in ensuring public safety. Last year during NTSB hearings, Boeing Vice President Mike Sinnett called their self-policing policy with FAA “in retrospect… [not] conservative enough.”

The NTSB apparently agrees. Its report says FAA provided “insufficient guidance” for its own certification engineers to develop testing for rechargeable batteries used in a commercial jumbo jet.

The Lion Air B-737 Max accident in Indonesia has drawn the attention towards a similar technical issue. The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was a design feature incorporated in the ill- fated Lion Air B-737 Max but the pilots did not know about it. The larger engines of the B-737 Max required the airframe to be modified as had been carried out by the Airbus on the A320-NEO. Due to the bigger size of the engines, the Airbus redesigned the wing and raised the nose thereby, altering the centre of gravity slightly, which affects the balance of the aircraft. Boeing, on the other hand, did not re-design the wing but raised the nose and introduced a design feature called MCAS, which would compensate for the change in the aircraft balance and the tendency for the nose to pitch up. The MCAS, whose function was to prevent an excessive nose up pitch, may have malfunctioned-possibly leading to the aircraft pitching down, leaving the crew in a confused state.

The Boeing-737 has been the best selling aircraft in history having taken 14,985 orders till October 2018. Boeing delivered the 10,000th B737 to Southwest Airlines in April 2018. Work on B-737 was started in 1964 and the 1st aircraft flew in 1967. After the huge commercial success of B-737, the Boeing company has another best seller, the B-777 which is about 2,000 aircraft orders behind.

Boeing introduced variants of the B-737 from 1971 onwards to cater for safety, aerodynamic and fuel efficiency issues. The latest variant, the Boeing 737 Max was launched in May 2017.

Technology changes with time, and industry has to keep pace with developments. This is because they have to keep up with the competitors and maintain the superior edge in-terms of hardware and software advances. All these developments and changes have to be made within the purview of the safety bubble. The manufacturer cannot afford to compromise the safety of the passengers, crew and the aircraft in any way. There are detailed systems and processes, which test each system for robustness and reliability. The regulator, who has the final authority and is responsible for safety gives the go ahead when they are convinced beyond doubt that the probability of a failure is kept to the minimum acceptable level.

The B-737 has had a series of technical issues with the aircraft rudder. The Seattle Times has given the chronology of the events, reproduced below:

“The B-737 started having technical issues beginning 1969 after Boeing issued service bulletin regarding rudders moving inadvertently. Between 1980-90 pilots filed hundreds of reports. The pilots reported rudder problems but Boeing blamed the yaw damper. There were two accidents:

  1. March 3, 1991: On final approach into Colorado Springs, United Flight 585 rolls right and takes a steep drop. All 25 on board die.
  2. Sept. 8, 1994: Descending in calm skies, USAir Flight 427 peels left and dives into a wooded ravine near Pittsburgh. All 132 on board die.

Seattle Times news report on the Boeing 737 safety issues.

November 1994: Boeing issued instructions for 737 pilots to shut off yaw damper if a jet veers slightly left or right. A series of tests and modifications were carried out thereafter.

Nov. 1, 1996: Boeing issued a service bulletin recommending that airlines operating 737s test the rudder power-control units of their aircraft to detect a potential jam condition.

After the Lion Air B-737 Max accident 24 years later, Boeing issued a service bulletin followed by a FAA emergency directive.

Nov 2018, Boeing issued a service bulletin informing the crew of uncommanded nose down Stabilizer trim due to Erroneous Angle of Attack during manual flight.”

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Above: Extract of the US court ruling

If what the Seattle Times reported, after the US Air 427, as per documents in their possession, after being released by court and the Lion Air 610 accident, is true, there seems to be an issue with respect to ethics rather than with safety. Boeing is a commercial organization, which manufactures the B-737, however, there is a dire need to look beyond the balance sheet and commitment to safety. The commitment to safety pays off in the long run if it becomes a habit and no corners are cut when safety issues are identified. The debate about safety and ethics is for the readers to decide by carrying out more research prior to forming an opinion.

Interestingly Boeing chose to respond to one of my blogs on another media. At that stage only Lion Air had gone down and Boeing was very confident about their tough stance of not budging. Please read the response which is filled with sentiment of safety in text only and not apparently in actions.

Boeing response
Boeing response
Normal accident theory

5 Comments on “A question of Safety or Ethics: Boeing 737

  1. Pingback: My comments on the Lion Air Accident posted in The New York Times – mindFly

  2. Pingback: After ET302,FAA admits MCAS is there and issues notification:mindFly – mindFly by Capt. Amit Singh FRAeS

  3. Sir, the article mentions that airbus ‘raised the nose’ on the neos to account for the larger engines. I know they tilted the engines upward facing angle of about 2.5 degrees and also the nacelle to ground clearance is reduced, but was the aircraft nose height also raised? Wouldn’t that also result in an incrseased cockpit to ground height? But as per the fcom ‘dimesnsions’ data, they are the same as for the comventional A320s?

    • The NEO CG has shifted slightly. As per my initial discussions with Airbus, they had disclosed that they would redesign the wing and raise the nose to accommodate the larger engines. Maybe not sigificantly.


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