Sunday, September 26, 2021

737 MAX Rides Again

by Bikram Vohra

IADB: Everyone has their own list of milestones that mark the progress of commercial aviation since 1903.

However, some have to be common. From the Ford trimotor to the durable DC-3, the Comet, the 707,the DC 10s and Lockheed’s Tristar, the Boeing 747 Jumbo, the fly by wire era with the Concorde, the Airbus 600 and the 320 family, the Dreamliner and then the 320neo with its long queue and also the sad and poignant story of the 737 max.

It was 2019 when the loss of two aircraft of this model in identical circumstances called for a total freeze on this fleet. The Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes occurred in October 2018 and March 2019. The accusation was centred on the addition of a software called the Maneouvring Characteristics Augmentation System which controls the pitch of the nose compounded by Boeing’s failure to disclose this new aspect to keeping the aircraft steady as compensation for the relatively more powerful Max engines. In both crashes the MCAS pushed the nose down, resisting the pilot’s efforts to pull out of the ‘nosedive.’

In brief, the inaccurate data being given by the ‘angle of attack’ sensors to the anti-stall computer commanding it to push the nose down prompted the flight into terrain because the drop could not be over-ridden by the pilots. The angle of attack sensor indirectly measures the amount of lift generated by the wings. The AOA refers to the angle between the wing and oncoming air. Its main purpose is to warn pilots/input to the computer when the plane could aerodynamically stall leading to loss of control.

To address what it called a potential unsafe condition the European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA) sent out a caution on July 31, 2019 warning of a similar if remote possibility of it going similarly wrong on the Airbus 320neos.

The reason why there is no dramatic flap over the EASA warning is predicated to new, more efficient engines, combined with airframe improvements and the addition of winglets, named Sharklets by Airbus. So there was never any real issue there.

In all fairness Boeing has taken the punch manfully and gone about rectifying the flaw with admirable transparency. Indeed, there was little chance of subterfuge or ducking the demands of the overhaul right from scratch but if confidence was to be restored in the 520 odd planes currently in service and a waitlist of 3290 aircraft what would have been the next milestone has been delayed but now with 170 of 195 nations clearing the aircraft perhaps her safety envelope will be above reproach.

If there is any concern it could be the niggling worry over the electrical systems that in May of this year grounded over 100 planes that had been given the green signal to take to the air. The FAA agreed to Boeing’s proffered fix and it has been initiated. And all the tests have proved airworthiness without conditions.

Despite the battering, the public acceptance of shortsightedness and what it itself called a compromise in standards, Boeing has managed to retain its credibility and the public’s faith by practicing an ‘open book’ due diligence aimed at offsetting the doubts that it had been less than forthcoming about the flaws.

At this moment for Boeing it is not so much sackcloth and ashes as it is a collective desire to make amends for the mistakes that cost 346 lives. It has made an honest effort to do the right thing. In its post correction phase it said; We collaborated with pilots, engineers and safety experts to create a comprehensive proposal calling for current 737-8 and 737-9 pilots to complete additional training, thoroughly review technical documentation and demonstrate their knowledge in a regulator-qualified, full-motion flight simulator.

Pilots from more than 80 of the world’s airlines tested the enhancements first-hand in a full-motion flight simulator. They also reviewed the course material and technical documentation. Each airline will work directly with its regulator to determine their training approach and receive approval for their training course.

It wasn’t that simple. The grounded fleet had to be taken out of storage across the globe.

When each airplane was stored, it went through a comprehensive multi-day process designed to preserve the airplane and its engines and systems while not in use. The process then had to be reversed before the airplane can be reactivated.

Once the airplane was reactivated, all of the changes mandated by regulators were completed and thoroughly documented. This included updates to MCAS, additional software updates, and modifying some wiring to meet regulators’ requirements. Regulators define the comprehensive processes that will be used to inspect and approve each and every airplane before it can return to commercial service.

Much the same intensive checks will go through the planes not yet delivered. Every airplane will go through Boeing’s comprehensive protocol for delivery of a new airplane. This includes flight-critical ground testing, test flights by Boeing and the customer, and a detailed customer inspection. The FAA will perform in-person, individual reviews of each new airplane prior to issuing its airworthiness certificate.

What will happen with the airplanes that were delivered to customers?

Airplanes that are already part of a customer fleet have their own processes and checkpoints. These include showing the local regulator documentation of all of the performed changes and completing an operational readiness flight.

According to Boeing their support for customers flying the 737-8 and 737-9 never stopped. They continued to work with each of them to resolve any challenges or questions as they arose. In a statement Boeing declared: To keep all of our customers informed about the latest developments in process and status, we also set up an information-sharing program, where we would provide a full update every week. We also conducted monthly collaborative work sessions with our global community of airline partners.

As the airplanes began to transition into long-term storage, we set up a proactive approach where we regularly visually inspected every one of the stored airplanes, regardless of its location around the world. Our inspector would document their findings and share it with the airline and the larger community of partner airlines.

The comeback trail ironically has been cleared to a fair extent by the success of the A320neo. With an order of over 8700 units and nearly 900 in operation the waiting list is long and the wait wearisome. The Max is the nearest viable option and probably now equally reliable in terms of costs and performance. That is why some aviation giants like Rakesh Jhunjunwala, the chief of the Astara startup is seeking 100 737 Max and if he gets his funding that puts the Max back on the sales map. It is believed that Spicejet will soon be asking the DGCA to clear its fleet for the 737 max to fly again and it seems the Indian authority is in discussions with the carrier and Boeing reps to fast forward this return.

Boeing would like to see the 737 Max in Indian skies heralding more sales to several of the 39 carriers knocking on its door. These include scheduled, regional, chartered, and cargo airlines.

“Whenever an airline had to ferry a stored airplane to another location, we worked alongside their team to remove the airplane from storage, reactivate it and monitor all of its systems while in-flight. Ultimately, more than 400 flights were conducted, generating invaluable data about the process and performance of the reactivated airplane.”

One would not expect anything less in terms of due diligence from the world’s biggest manufacturer and the work done on the Max rehabilitation does ipso facto make it a very safe ride. In essence widely quoted on the return of the Max is Gary Kelly, chief executive, Southwest: ‘I would not hesitate for a second to put my wife, daughters and granddaughters onboard the plane.’

Steve Dickson head of the FAA echoed the sentiments saying he would be 100% comfortable sending his family on a flight. Courtesy the extreme scrutiny it is now probably one of the safest aircraft in the skies having completed over 1400 tests.
These sort of corporate pronouncements is just what the Max needs to restore carrier and passenger confidence in the aircraft.

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