From Peter Haisenko
The example of the Boeing 737, and especially the latest development stage MAX 8/9 shows the fatal consequences of important decisions no longer being made by engineers, but by businessmen instead. No engineer in their right mind would have designed the 737 MAX in the way it has been done, had it not been forced by profit-hungry managers. It is Boeing’s board of directors that is ultimately to blame for the nearly 400 deaths from two crashes, as well as for the looming bankruptcy of their entire firm.
From the outset, Boeing’s model B 737 has been a junk design dominated by tinkering and tampering. Back in the early 1960s, when Boeing was designing the original B 737-100, they planned for a seating configuration of 2/3, just as in the DC9. However, Lufthansa, the largest launch customer, wanted a 3/3 version like the B 727 and the B 707. Yet at that stage, the construction phase was already progressed, and so the tinkering and tampering began in order to avoid costly redesigns. Boeing simply left the narrow cockpit as it was because the design phase had already been finished – to this day, therefore, pilots of all variations of the 737 have to squeeze into cockpits so narrow that one could need a shoehorn to enter. But of course, much to the delight of the businessmen, such a mini-cockpit is lighter than an ergonomically designed one. And this was not the only (rotten) cost-cutting compromise.
Boeing has designed flying junk to lower costs
Neither the nose landing gear nor the main landing gear was ever designed for today’s larger fuselage. Our flight engineers used to tell me that during their aeronautics studies, and as early as in the 1960s, they were given the example of the nose landing gear of the 737 as a model case for how not to construct one. Still, the B 737-100 became a top seller – a fact which one may, however, attribute to the lack of competing models.
In the 1970s, the B 737 was updated for the first time with the model B 737-200. The more powerful engines JT-8 were still small in size and fitted underneath the low wings. Boeing’s solution to increased bad weather suitability requirements at the time was an autopilot which has been a makeshift from the very beginning, yet is still used in every B 737 model to this day. This shortcoming is what led to the crash of the “Fly Dubai” in Rostov in April 2016. You can find more details about that crash and the autopilot here (in German): www.anderweltonline.com/wissenschaft-und-technik/luftfahrt-2016/fly-dubai-unfall-in-rostow-legt-eine-kette-von-systemfehlern-offen/
In the mid-1980s, Boeing presented their model 737-300. It was equipped with an electronic flight instrument system, just like the Airbus A 310 (i.e. fitted with screens instead of dials), as well as engines updated to what was state of the art at the time, and a large front rotor. Already at this stage, Boeing should have opted for a new design, as the engines did not fit under the low wings anymore. To avoid the costs for a new construction from scratch, and above all, to avoid having to obtain the necessary permissions for one, they chose the next makeshift solution. The engine was placed a little higher and a little more in front, and the inlet of the engine was truncated below, so that it would not be too close the ground and suck in every small pebble from the ground – something which would have destroyed the engine.
In the years since, Boeing has added more and more modifications to the B 737 models leading up to the -800. The basic design from the 1960s, along with all its shortcomings, has been left unchanged by Boeing. It is simply economical for the production to keep using components already certified.
At the end of the 1980s, Airbus released the A 320. The latter was a completely new construction, and Airbus set new standards for guidance systems and design. The A 320 became a direct and successful competitor to the B 737. Boeing’s hand was forced, yet it could keep winning over customers for its junk aircraft 737 based on its cheap price. This was also aided by Airbus not being able to deliver enough aircrafts to satisfy global demand. This illustrates a fundamental problem of international aviation - the enormous growth, primarily in Asia and Africa. Qualified new pilots and sufficiently experienced mechanics are hard to come by. Airbus had foreseen this problem and designed the guidance systems in the A 320 in such a way that they would also be helpful to less experienced pilots. Boeing is trying to match them, but does not manage to measure up to the A 320, which has been more adeptly designed from the start.
Airbus sets the bar higher once more with its A 320-neo
It is crucial to consider the markets for this class of airplane. Not only since yesterday are these markets in locations where different qualities are appreciated compared to Europe. Even in the US, airlines do not keep spare capacities for landings in bad sight conditions. To this day, there are but few airports in the US fulfilling the on-the-ground conditions for a category III landing, i.e. for a visibility range of less than 100 metres (328 feet). Meeting these conditions is expensive, both on the ground and in the air. In Africa or in Southeast Asia, there are practically no airports meeting them, simply because there is no need for it. This also explains why Boeing never bothered to improve their junk autopilot to an appropriate level – approximately 90 per cent of their customer base simply has no need for it.
As a result of high oil prices, demand for fuel efficient models has grown. Airbus has set standards again with its A 320-neo and its particularly fuel efficient engines. Boeing’s hand was forced once again. However, the advanced and huge engines of the A 320 simply did not fit under the wings of the old B 737 anymore. Yet instead of finally constructing an entirely new model, the businessmen at Boeing decided to build the ultimate makeshift solution, in contravention of all rules of aerodynamics. The engines, in principle too large for the 737, were shifted even further to the front, and even higher. The first test flights showed that it was not quite as easy to outsmart the laws of physics. The engine’s airstrem now went directly under the wing, which is bound to have several negative effects. Firstly, the ascending force is compromised, but the biggest problems occurred in extremely slow flight, i.e. shortly before stalling, which can lead to a crash. In this situation with the 737 MAX, the engine’s airstream lies entirely under the lower outer wing, which pushes the aircraft into an uncontrollable state. Instead of finally carrying out a new construction, Boeing’s managers chose the worst tinkering solution: they had a system built in which completely takes over control of the aircraft in this limit case. Once any sensor – and it could be a single one – recognises the limit case, the computer connected to this system induces the aircraft to adjust the trim of the elevator unit all the way to “nose down”. This is not wrong in principle, but overshoots the mark. The lack of a control system for this lethal limit case system has shown to be fatal twice already, something which should never happen in aviation. The implication is that if a single sensor produces an erroneous signal, the pilots will hardly have any chance of preventing their aircraft from full-on hitting the ground. The hole in the Ethiopian soil bears witness to this.
Not the engineers but the managers are to blame
One should know that the trim of the elevator unit has always been susceptible to faults in case of all the smaller Boeing models. It is a motor-jackscrew unit prone to either “running away” after a relay defect, or to popping up and jamming somewhere. For this reason, the B 727 had a prominently placed emergency switch to cut off the trim motor from electricity, i.e. to deactivate it. This was practiced in the flight simulator. The later 737 models do not have this emergency switch anymore. That means that even if the pilots have identified the fault, they cannot switch off the trim engine with one touch anymore to save the aircraft. They would have to switch off the entire bus bar to which the trim motor is connected. By doing this, however, they would switch off other primary systems, and the whole process cannot be executed in a split second either. Therefore, if the only sensor for the approach angle sends a wrong signal to what is in turn the only computer, then the airplane is beyond saving, at least at low altitude.
The B 737 MAX is a faulty design from the very beginning. Anyone with knowledge about aerodynamics can spot this by simply looking at the aircraft. It is the high point in a series of makeshift designs, characterising the entire history of the development of the B 737. The blame is not with the engineers, but with the managers forcing the engineers to build junk despite them knowing better. The fact that this indeed against their better judgement is shown by the existence of an email from summer 2018 (before the first crash), in which Boeing employees already document which potential consequences that design flaw can have. The board of directors did not react and thereby tacitly accepted that the very thing which we had to witness twice within few months now happened, resulting in almost 400 dead.
Ethiopia has no trust in the manufacturer, nor in the FAA
Aside from the managers of Boeing, also the heads of the FAA are to be held accountable. They certified the 737 MAX’s airworthiness even though they must have known what a piece of junk it is. It is therefore also not surprising that they were the last ones to finally ground the 737 MAX. It has been a unique event in aviation history that individual countries had to come out with flying bans before the authority that should be in charge for it condescends to so. Yet this was preceded by something even more unique.
It was in fact not the FAA or the manufacturer Boeing who banned the 737 MAX from flying even within the US – it was Donald Trump, who hit the emergency break by issuing a decree. After that, the FAA and Boeing had no choice but take the very step which was overdue since at least the summer of 2018. There is something else interesting and unique going on: Contrary to standard procedure, the investigation was assigned to the French BEA, and the black boxes were sent to Paris for investigation. This amounts almost to a declaration of war against the American aviation industry, but in any case demonstrates how little trust in the integrity of American institutions there is left globally. This could also be a consequence of the many known cases where American authorities have provided premeditatedly falsified data about aviation accidents. One such case, for instance, was the TWA600 downed by a US missile, and the subsequent efforts to conceal this from the public and even from the pilot community using every criminal method in the book.
The story of the B 737 MAX and of all the 737 models exemplifies the state of the US and their (aviation) industry. In order to attain short term profit, rules which have been developed for decades and out of necessity are cast aside. What difference do a few hundred deaths make when profit shall be saved? Even the FAA seems to be corrupted to the bones, and this is where the next aspect comes into play. Donald Trump apparently seems to know this, as he wanted to instate his personal chief pilot as chief of the FAA – a plan which has been met with fierce resistance. He apparently wants to drain the swamp on all levels. Had he been able to force his will, it would not have been unlikely that the 737 MAX would not have been approved at all in the current configuration and that 400 people would not have had to die. Another juicy detail is that that there have been warnings coming from Russia from the very beginning concerning the airworthiness of the 737 MAX.
Turbocapitalism cannot survive in the long run
The disasters involving the B 737 MAX push the entire aviation industry into difficulties. In the European charter season in the summer of 2019 there will be supply shortfalls. For Boeing itself, however, this can mean the end. After all, several hundred 737 MAX have already been delivered, and these aircraft will have to be scrapped in all likelihood, since a simple software update will not be sufficient to address the fundamental problem of the faulty design. Nor is it an option to resume production of the old models of the 737 – that is easier said than done to begin with, and besides, who would still want an aircraft unable to match the A 320 neo?
The case of the 737 MAX exemplifies that turbocapitalism cannot survive in the long run. The world cannot function “sustainably” and aviation least of all, when only profit is the deciding factor. This has been shown by the revelations around Diesel cars, and is now shown as drastically by Boeing.
What we need is a radical change in thinking. Capital and its managers and profiteers have to be disempowered, so that common sense and communities can be empowered again. This does not only apply to the aviation and car industries, but above all to the pharmaceutical industry, where the intention is not to heal people but where the primary interest is to sell ever more drugs to per se healthy people. However, for improvement to be possible, and to prevent that thousands of people have to keep dying due to the greed for profits, there has to be a thorough reset of the entire system. That reset must be radical and not omit anything that should have been questioned for a long time already.