The Boeing 737 has been a workhorse aircraft in the world of commercial aviation since the first ones rolled off the assembly line in 1967. Now, more than 50 years and many models later, it is still in use with many of the world’s major airlines.
On May 16, 2017, Boeing completed the delivery of yet another 737, but this one was different. This was the first of a next-generation variant of the 737. The 737 MAX.
Boeing had marketed the aircraft as a next-generation airliner. Staying true to its name, the 737 MAX delivered maximum safety, comfort, and performance making it on paper better than any other airliner in its class.
The 737 MAX quickly went into service with major airlines such as Southwest, American Airlines, Aeromexico and Air Canada. Companies, most notably Southwest (who operates an exclusively Boeing fleet) proudly marketed the 737 MAX as their latest and greatest acquisition.
Fast forward to October 29, 2018. Lion Air flight 610 flying out of Jakarta crashes killing all 189 people on board. The aircraft in question? A Boeing 737 MAX 8 one of the newest 737 MAX’s. Five months later on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashes killing all 157 people on board. Again the aircraft in question was a brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8.
As with most incidents of this nature, investigators immediately started asking why. Why did two of the same aircraft crash in such a short time frame and more importantly what was the cause?
Initial investigations pointed to an onboard safety system called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS.
MCAS is an anti-stall system. When an aircraft stalls it loses airspeed and with that less speed the aircraft loses lift. This loss of speed and lift means that pilots risk losing control of the aircraft, so that is why MCAS is onboard, to prevent stalls.
Another system investigated at least with the Lion Air crash were onboard sensors called AOA which monitors the aircraft's angle of attack to help prevent stalls. Out of the two of these systems, it was MCAS that drew the most attention.
Gregory Lewis, a retired United States Air Force and Southwest Airlines pilot and CYSD board member was able to offer some of his insight.
Lewis stood by the 737 MAX 8 calling it “An absolute beautiful aircraft” and its industry-leading engines “truly revolutionary.” Despite this praise, people are now skeptical of the 737 MAX after its recent safety troubles. Lewis then went on discussing the MCAS system onboard the aircraft. His assessment of the matter was blunt but true stating simply: “Boeing messed up.”
Lewis flew the 737 MAX three times during his 18 year Southwest career and stated: “Boeing never told us anything about MCAS being on the airplane.” He continues explaining that MCAS was a system that Boeing thought didn’t need to be talked about. Well, as it turned out, it did.
Investigative reports show that in the events leading up to the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 the MCAS system activated suddenly forcing the nose of the aircraft down in an effort to recover from the aircrafts non-existent stall. The crew reacted by trying to regain control of the aircraft momentarily being able to keep it flying before MCAS re-activated sealing the aircraft's fate.
While MCAS is taking most of the blame for the demise of the two 737 MAX’s Lewis said “I think there was still some pilot error.” This is definitely a possibility because, despite reports saying the crew was qualified to fly the 737 MAX, the co-pilot only had 200 hours of flying time which Lewis compared to having a passenger in the cockpit.
Lewis also said, “I think the public would be very refreshed” if they knew the amount of training and experience needed to fly jets for major airlines. Lewis said that pilots needed 1500 hours of flight time to even apply to Southwest and a good portion needed to be Pilot-in-Command time meaning they were in charge of the aircraft.
In the wake of the two disasters, all Boeing 737 MAX aircraft around the world have been grounded. That means that companies like Southwest that operate 34 of the 737 MAX aircraft cannot fly them.
In the time since the grounding Boeing has issued a software update to all 737 MAX’s to improve the function of the MCAS system to prevent anything like this from happening again. But also in this time, the FAA has received criticism for allowing Boeing to vet its own aircraft which Lewis says is “Not uncommon at all” also saying that the FAA does not have to manpower to be able to provide constant check but does admit the incidents with MCAS being a case of oversight of Boeing’s part.
Lewis also said “I think it is time for the FAA to re-evaluate their certification procedures,” also stating that “rigorous and quality pilot training,” could also be a solution.
For now, all we can do is wait to see what else is found before the conclusion of the investigation to help give us, the general public an idea of the what the 737 MAX 8’s fate will be.