It wasn’t a 100 percent honest honest mistake

Sunday, October 6th, 2019

Boeing’s MCAS (the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) was an honest mistake, but the secrecy shrouding the program’s very existence told you it wasn’t a 100 percent honest honest mistake:

According to Rick Ludtke, a former Boeing employee, Boeing agreed to rebate Southwest $1 million for every MAX it bought, if the FAA required level-D simulator training for the carrier’s pilots.


Simulator training for Southwest’s 9,000 pilots would have been a pain, but hardly ruinous; aviation industry analyst Kit Darby said it would cost about $2,000 a head. It was also unlikely: The FAA had three levels of “differences” training that wouldn’t have necessarily required simulators. But the No Sim Edict would haunt the program; it basically required any change significant enough for designers to worry about to be concealed, suppressed, or relegated to a footnote that would then be redacted from the final version of the MAX. And that was a predicament, because for every other airline buying the MAX, the selling point was a major difference from the last generation of 737: unprecedented fuel efficiency in line with the new Airbus A320neo.

The MAX and the Neo derived their fuel efficiency from the same source: massive “LEAP” engines manufactured by CFM, a 50-50 joint venture of GE and the French conglomerate Safran. The engines’ fans were 20 inches — or just over 40 percent larger in diameter than the original 737 Pratt & Whitneys, and the engines themselves weighed in at approximately 6,120 pounds, about twice the weight of the original engines. The planes were also considerably longer, heavier, and wider of wingspan. What they couldn’t be, without redesigning the landing gear and really jeopardizing the grandfathered FAA certification, was taller, and that was a problem. The engines were too big to tuck into their original spot underneath the wings, so engineers mounted them slightly forward, just in front of the wings.

This alteration created a shift in the plane’s center of gravity pronounced enough that it raised a red flag when the MAX was still just a model plane about the size of an eagle, running tests in a wind tunnel. The model kept botching certain extreme maneuvers, because the plane’s new aerodynamic profile was dragging its tail down and causing its nose to pitch up. So the engineers devised a software fix called MCAS, which pushed the nose down in response to an obscure set of circumstances in conjunction with the “speed trim system,” which Boeing had devised in the 1980s to smooth takeoffs. Once the 737 MAX materialized as a real-life plane about four years later, however, test pilots discovered new realms in which the plane was more stall-prone than its predecessors. So Boeing modified MCAS to turn down the nose of the plane whenever an angle-of-attack (AOA) sensor detected a stall, regardless of the speed. That involved giving the system more power and removing a safeguard, but not, in any formal or genuine way, running its modifications by the FAA, which might have had reservations with two critical traits of the revamped system: Firstly, that there are two AOA sensors on a 737, but only one, fatefully, was programmed to trigger MCAS. The former Boeing engineer Ludtke and an anonymous whistle-blower interviewed by 60 Minutes Australia both have a simple explanation for this: Any program coded to take data from both sensors would have had to account for the possibility the sensors might disagree with each other and devise a contingency for reconciling the mixed signals. Whatever that contingency, it would have involved some kind of cockpit alert, which would in turn have required additional training — probably not level-D training, but no one wanted to risk that. So the system was programmed to turn the nose down at the feedback of a single (and somewhat flimsy) sensor. And, for still unknown and truly mysterious reasons, it was programmed to nosedive again five seconds later, and again five seconds after that, over and over ad literal nauseam.


  1. Kirk says:

    I’m “local” to Boeing, and hear from people actually in the company. The engineers have been predicting something like this happening since McDonnell-Douglas took them over.

    On paper, the deal was that Boeing bailed out MD; reality was that MD’s business executives took over Boeing from within, and the company started following the siren song of the MBA, rather than the traditional Boeing engineering culture. The fruits of that were the disastrous outsourcing on the 787, and now this. Whether Boeing can survive or get back to the original corporate culture is the question, and I venture to predict that if the MD corporate culture remains dominant, the company will go bankrupt.

    MD was that crooked. They were never really an aerospace company after the suits took over, and once they ran MD into the ground, those same suits parasitized a new host. It’s a mess, and will continue to be one so long as the corporate culture remains under the domination of the old MD dumbasses that ran that company into the ground.

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    The suits destroy everything. GM with its 1:1 ratio of salary to hourly workers has whole departments of people who can’t find the oil dipstick even if you open the hood for them. Since salary workers tend to make more than hourly workers the ‘cost’ of the line worker is not the burden, but the suits won’t talk about that.

  3. Kirk says:

    The whole thing ties into my observation that we’re really not very good at this whole “organization” thing… Every institution we create becomes a power sink, which attracts the parasite do-nothing apparatchik types.

    Personally, I think the only way forward is to either figure out a way to make a self-cleaning, self-regulatory bureaucratic structure, or to just eschew the entire mess. The paradigm is wrong; humans are wired for small groups and chaos above that.

    My guess is that if the project to colonize and spread out to the Americas by the ancient ancestors of the Amerindians had been run by some kind of NASA-like entity, they might have made it as far as the Aleutian Islands about the time the Vikings found Greenland.

    Humans do not do large-scale very well, unless it is something military. Killing people? Yeah; we’re real good at that, and can make it work despite our predilection for corruption and malfeasance in our organizations.

    I suppose another path might be to just say “F**k it, we’re crooked and slimy bastards… Let’s go with that…”, and somehow institutionalize the corruption such that it actually works effectively. Dunno what that might look like–East India Company on steroids? No matter what, though, what we’re doing currently is just not working out over the long haul. Boeing is a perfect example of how the suits capture an organization and remold it in their image. See also: Saturn, within that which was GM.

    The “Suit Mentality” is pernicious, and damn near as hard to eradicate as that fungus that reprograms ants–Cordyceps. It’s also as inimical…

  4. David Foster says:

    A little strange that Boeing agreed to at $1 million per plane penalty clause…if they had held out for something more reasonable, in terms of the actual economic impact of Level D simulator training, say $100K, would Southwest have walked away from the deal? Seems unlikely…if so, then the $1MM number was basically chest-thumping.

    And with a lower number, there would have been far less pressure to keep the feature out of the manuals and invisible on the panel.

  5. Lucklucky says:

    Not an honest mistake.

    The fact they did not have even a simulator that represented this aircraft model and its significant changes tells everything.
    That the FAA went along with it too.

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