Before I get into the nuts and bolts of this post, Boeing just announced a major corporate shakeup. Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg has tendered his resignation today. He has been with Boeing since 1985 starting as an engineer. Previously, Dennis was stripped of his Chairman of the Board role last October. The new CEO, David Calhoun will officially take over on January 13, 2020. This change had been in the works as David Calhoun has already been in discussions with airline customers and the FAA over the 737 MAX issues. Mr. Calhoun comes from a senior management position of The Blackstone Group. interestingly, The Blackstone Group is the parent of Hilton Worldwide Corporation.
For some time now, Boeing has been plodding along like a rudderless ship. I have spent most of my working life in management and here are some things that I firmly believe:
- Highly Successful senior managers are born and not made. Either you have management attributes to be successful or you don’t.
- You can’t necessarily take an existing non-management employee and successfully groom them into a senior-level manager. (Dennis Muilenburg)
- You can take a successful manager with non-industry experience and teach them a new industry. Remember, it is those inherent management talents that will prevail. (David Calhoun)
Before the emails flood my inbox, let me say that the above scenarios are generally true and I know that there are exceptions to any rule.
I am totally confident that Mr. Calhoun will roll up his sleeves and begin the turnaround at Boeing. This will take some time so don’t look for an instant U-turn. The biggest objective for this new CEO is to restore confidence in Boeing to its customers and those of us who fly on their aircraft.
The Suspension of the 737 MAX Production by Boeing
Last week, I wrote about the suspension of the 737 MAX production. If you missed that post, please read it as it will provide you with the context to appreciate the rest of this post. You can find that post here.
Mentour Pilot Explains the 737 MAX MCAS Problems
An In-depth Look at the MCAS Problem
To start off, let me say that not only am I a frequent airline flyer but I am also a Major in the Civil Air Patrol (U. S. Air Force Aux.) flying search and rescue missions in a Cessna 182. Generally speaking, except for the vast difference in sizes and related flight behaviors, flying is still flying. Aircraft only have three control characteristics:
- PITCH – the ability to ascend (pitch the nose up) and descend (pitch the nose downward). This is controlled by the elevators on the rear-mounted, horizontal stabilizer.
- YAW – the ability to turn the aircraft left and right to assist in turning. This is controlled by the rudder.
- ROLL – the ability to bank the aircraft to assist in performing a coordinated turn. This is controlled by the ailerons.
MCAS was supposed to avoid over-pitching the aircraft so it would not enter into an aerodynamic stall which would cause the aircraft to fall out of the sky due to a lack of lift. This was the whole point of MCAS if MCAS worked correctly.
In order to fly a commercial aircraft, a pilot has to be certified by the FAA for each type of aircraft they fly. This is known as a type rating. The Boeing 737 has been flying since 1967 and has evolved from the original series (100 and 200) to the classic series (300 – 600) to the next generation (NG) series (700 – 900). A pilot that has been certified on the classic model should be able to fly the NG series without additional FAA certification. This is because the feel and handling characteristics are virtually the same. My post last week talks about the major differences between the previous generations of the 737 and the 737 MAX series. The feel and the handling characteristics changed due to the revised engine placements and their effect on the airflow over the wings.
In order to avoid pilot certification for the 737 MAX series, Boeing decided to enhance flight automation to make it appear seamless to the pilots flying the 737 MAX series. To do so, Boeing integrated the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS.
Where MCAS Went Wrong
Anytime, an aircraft manufacturer does anything that changes the handling characteristics of an existing aircraft, it could be a walk on a very slippery slope. My aircraft, a Cessna 182-T has a digital cockpit using the Garmin G-1000 avionics suite. Everything we do from issued flight handling commands to the autopilot is handled through the G-1000 computer. If there is an upgraded Cessna 182 or just an upgrade to our existing system, the manufacturer needs to communicate those changes and provide training on those changes.
Boeing felt that MCAS would produce only mild handling characteristics changes and therefore failed to communicate this with 737 MAX pilots and customers along with provided essentially no training on MCAS. This worked well in theory but failed in execution. Here is why:
MCAS relies on input from two nose-mounted Angle of Attack (AOA) sensors. The production MCAS system only accepted data from one AOA sensor. If that AOA sensor was faulty, MCAS would rely on faulty data to make MCAS execution decisions.
LACK OF MCAS FAILURE WARNINGS
If a major avionics fault occurs, there should be either a visual or audible warning annunciator to warn the pilots of that fault. Both visual and audible warning annunciators are best. Boeing originally equipped the 737 MAX with no fault warning and made a visual warning part of an optional package. Since when did safety become an option?
SINGLE EVENT EXECUTION
The design of MCAS was to engage one time and only one time. In reality, MCAS would reset and execute over and over again. This created a roller coast flight profile which confused the pilots of both 737 MAX crashes. The pilots flying with no MCAS training and a faulty MCAS execution had no idea what was going on with their aircraft. These pilots were literally fighting with the flight management computer for control of the aircraft.
OVER-TRIMMING OF THE HORIZONTAL STABILIZERS
Simply put, MCAS over-corrected the pitch problem by over-pitching the nose in a downward direction. Again the pilots were clueless and fighting for control of the aircraft.
DOCUMENTATION AND TRAINING
This was a key failure by Boeing. Aircraft by law have a book referred to as the Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) or Pilot Operating Handbook ( POH). Boeing failed to adequately document the MCAS system in the 737 MAX QRH. Boeing had an inadequate training module on an I-PAD application. Again, this was far from being a complete reference. MCAS in its present form should and must require simulator training for pilots.
Will the 737 MAX Return to Service? Will You be Able to Trust the 737 MAX?
Let me address the trust issue first. Boeing’s future existence relies on the flying public to wanting to fly on this aircraft and not avoid it. Boeing has a long way to go in order to gain back the trust of both its customers and those flying aboard the 737 MAX.
In order for the 737 MAX to return to flight service, all world-wide regulatory agencies will have to recertify the 737 MAX and not just the FAA. Until this world-wide re-certification take place, the 737 MAX will sit on the ground. When the MAX returns to service, you can be assured that this aircraft will be the most scrutinized aircraft to ever undergo flight certification.
About Mentour Pilot
My friend, Petter is an experienced Boeing 737 Line and Training Captain for a major European carrier. His YouTube channel and aviation app cover aviation issues and he does a great job explaining what is going on in commercial aviation. You can find his Youtube channel here.