The Tragic Failure of Boeing 737 Max
A manufacturing failure, a rushed certification and long-standing corporate rivalry coalesced—shaping two of the deadliest aviation disasters of all time
With cutting-edge turbofan engines, ingenious aerodynamics and a fuel efficiency unrivalled by any single-aisle aircraft, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 were made to lead the industry from the front.
Naturally, the business was about to boom for Boeing.
The 737 Max family was viewed as the paragon of aircraft engineering, and its industry-leading fuel efficiency promising to save 14-20% more fuel than its predecessor quickly made it the airlines’ favourite passenger jet.
In November 2011, Indonesian low-cost airline Lion Air ordered 380 Boeing 737 and 201 fourth-generation 737 Max jets amounting over $21.7 billion. By the end of the year, the aerospace giant had a record-breaking 948 commitments from over 13 clientele, and the sales curve was nowhere close to flattening.
So what led to the marvellous aircraft’s fall from grace?
Almost 9 years later, in May 2020, Boeing witnessed mass cancellations on its orders for the 737 Max aircraft, bringing the firm’s backlog down from 5,049 jets in April to 4,834 jets in May. Many more airline firms followed suit in June, including BOC aviation that nixed its order for 30 Boeing 747 Max jets and European low-cost airline Norwegian Air Shuttle that hit the US airplane manufacturer with a lawsuit and a large cancellation of 92 B-737 Max jets.
The 737 Max 8 had been hiding a fatal flaw for 8 years, one with the potential to ground its entire fleet for the foreseeable future—that is, until October 2018.
The Trims That Kept Pitching Down
On October 29, 2018 Lion Air Flight 610 departed from Soekarno Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, outbound for Depati Amir Airport in Pangkal Pinang. Lion Air Flight 610 took off from Jakarta at 6:20 AM WIB.
A few minutes later, Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 passengers and crew on board.
In a related incident, in March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 en route to Nairobi crashed near Bishoftu, a town located in the Oromia Region in Ethiopia, six minutes after take-off. There were no survivors.
The series of errors and oversight leading to the disasters date back years, and is closely related to corporate rivalry between Boeing and its arch-rival in the aviation industry: Airbus SE.
In November 2010 Airbus announced an updated version of its hottest-selling aircraft, equipped with a new, bigger turbofan engine providing 15% greater fuel efficiency, called the Airbus A320neo.
The A320neo had kept changes minimal, in fact, the changes were so minute that the aircraft was approved on the existing A320 type certificate. This meant that a pilot holding a type rating for the A320 could walk into the cockpit of its successor and operate the aircraft.
Thus began the tacit competition between Boeing and Airbus.
To reclaim the single-aisle airline market, Boeing began development on the 737 Max project. The approach was obvious: to provide a more fuel-efficient aircraft than the competitor. Except, there was a problem.
The ground clearance of the Boeing 737-800 was significantly lower than that of the Airbus A320neo, so Boeing couldn’t simply slide a larger new engine under the wing of their aircraft. Thence, the engineers had to look for a workaround. Eventually, the engineers decided to mount the CFM LEAP-1B turbofan engines slightly forward and higher up on the aircraft’s wing.
This in turn, however, was the birth of a new aerodynamic stability problem. When the engine thrust was set to full, such as during take-off and steep climb, the 737 Max’s nose pitched upward too far, and could potentially cause the plane to stall.
To counteract this, Boeing implemented the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS, which would automatically detect high angle of attack and pitch the nose downwards to avert a stall situation.
However, in a shocking display of oversight, Boeing failed to communicate regarding this new addition to the pilots. Since the company was adopting the Airbus’ minimal flight training model while selling the new aircraft. As a matter of fact, Boeing complacently stated that pilots only required a one-hour iPad course to operate the aircraft.
“We should all want pilots to experience these challenging situations for the first time in a simulator and not in flight with passengers and crew on board. And reading about it on an iPad is not even close to sufficient,” critiqued retired airline captain Chesley Sullenberger, widely renowned for safely landing US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after both of the plane’s engines failed as a result of a bird strike.
Following the Lion Air Flight 610 disaster, investigation revealed the pilots’ continued struggle against the malfunctioning MCAS to gain altitude, which was receiving incorrect sensor data and caused the aircraft to lurch downward, until it eventually went down in the Java Sea.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued an Emergency Order of Prohibition on March 13, 2019, immediately prohibiting the operation of the Boeing 737-8 and 737-9 aircraft by certificated operators in the United States and its territories, following the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The FAA announced that the order will ‘remain in effect until the issuance of an applicable FAA order rescinding or modifying this Order’.
As of now, 51 countries including the UK and Canada have grounded the 737 Max.
The FAA has acknowledged that in the domain of avionic software regulation, the administration allows manufacturers such as Boeing to self-assess for safety, thereby delegating a part of their jobs as regulators to manufacturers themselves. Evidently, self-regulation has not proven to be successful.
Currently, the 737 Max is completing test flights for its recertification under the supervision of the FAA to demonstrate that the aircraft is safe to fly with a revamped flight control software. Upon the discretion of the FAA, the 737 Max may return to service after satisfactory completion of tests.
Earlier last month, The Seattle Times reported that a Boeing engineer, Curtis Ewbank sent a letter to the U.S. Senate committee, raising concern about the jet’s systemic problems.
“I have no doubt the FAA and lawmakers are under considerable pressure to allow the 737 MAX to return to service as quickly as possible and as soon as the public MCAS flaw is fixed,” the 34-year-old told the Senate.
“However, given the numerous other known flaws in the airframe, it will be just a matter of time before another flight crew is overwhelmed by a design flaw known to Boeing and further lives are senselessly lost.”
In the midst of cut-throat competition with its contemporary, Boeing cut corners in a line of work where one simply can’t hit the brakes, and 346 souls paid the price with their lives.
The tragic tales of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 must be recounted, retold and reflected upon to serve as testimony to the fact that in aviation, no technology is above failure, no error too small to be overlooked, and no risk worth taking; especially when hundreds of lives are on the line.
As Captain Sullenberger would say, “We must investigate accidents before they happen.”
Fear of accidents will end the moment fear of complacency begins.
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