08 October 2020

The New York Times: “Boeing built Deadly Assumptions into 737 Max, Blind to a Late Design Change”

The fatal flaws with Boeing’s 737 Max can be traced to a breakdown late in the plane’s development, when test pilots, engineers and regulators were left in the dark about a fundamental overhaul to an automated system that would ultimately play a role in two crashes.

A year before the plane was finished, Boeing made the system more aggressive and riskier. While the original version relied on data from at least two types of sensors, the final version used just one, leaving the system without a critical safeguard. In both doomed flights, pilots struggled as a single damaged sensor sent the planes into irrecoverable nose-dives within minutes, killing 346 people and prompting regulators around the world to ground the Max.

While prosecutors and lawmakers try to piece together what went wrong, the current and former employees point to the single, fateful decision to change the system, which led to a series of design mistakes and regulatory oversights. As Boeing rushed to get the plane done, many of the employees say, they didn’t recognize the importance of the decision. They described a compartmentalized approach, each of them focusing on a small part of the plane. The process left them without a complete view of a critical and ultimately dangerous system.

Jack Nicas, Natalie Kitroeff, David Gelles & James Glanz

Move fast and break things’ – Facebook’s original motto – does not translate well to the real world, where rushing a hardware change patched with a quick software fix caused two plane crashes and hundreds of deaths. To be fair, that motto has not served Facebook well either, as their careless attitude lead to numerous toxic side-effects over the years. In Boeing’s case, they had to stop producing the 737 Max model, and international regulators are still reluctant to allow the plane to fly again. Boeing’s faulty internal processes may have also impacted their CST-100 Starliner, a new crew capsule designed to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

Boeing 737 Max
Federal Aviation Administration officials said Boeing’s request to remove MCAS from the pilot’s manual didn’t mention that the system was being overhauled. Jason Redmond/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

More concerning is the lack of accountability for these decisions and mistakes – an aspect that the Boeing situation also shares with Facebook. The acting CEO at the time, Dennis Muilenburg, was fired last December, but he is still entitled to pension and stock benefits of about $62 million, more than the company paid to family members of the victims. He was criticized by his successor, but that was about the extent of the consequences for his crass mismanagement. Without proper accountability, the road is open for more tragic situations like this to happen again and again in the future.

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