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THE MAX PROBLEM

Young Bites. Dated: 4/11/2019 6:06:38 AM

IT APPEARS THAT A SOFTWARE, DESIGNED TO MAKE A PILOT’S LIFE EASIER, MAY HAVE CAUSED THE TWO CRASHES OF BOEING 737 MAX AIRCRAFT. WHAT CONCLUSION SHOULD WE DRAW THEN? Sometimes it pays to look into history. The same is the case with aviation. In 1991, a United Airlines plane smashed into the ground in Colorado. A few years later, in 1994, another plane, this time operated by the US Airways, nose-dived near Pittsburg. Around 157 people died in both the crashes but investigators from the United States’ National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) could not pin down the cause while they had their suspicions about the fact that a faulty aircraft rudder caused the problem. It was not until June 1996, when a third aircraft in Miami suffered another catastrophic event but managed to land safely, that investigators found out the truth. It was indeed a faulty rudder system, even though the manufacturer for the longest time disputed this finding. What is interesting to note here is that the aircraft in question was the Boeing 737. Even though there were thousands of Boeing 737s already in service at that time, the aircraft, initially developed by American manufacturer Boeing in the 1960s, was going to become an integral part of global aviation. Today, a Boeing 737 either takes off or lands somewhere in the world every two seconds. Over 10,000 Boeing 737s have been built and while the latest iteration, the Boeing 737 Max, bears a resemblance to the original aircraft, it is just cursory. What came to be known as the “rudder hardover” issue, which might have derailed the aircraft’s future, is now just a footnote. So, events in the past six months, when two Boeing 737 Max 8 jets crashed — one in Indonesia and another in Ethiopia, killing close to 400 people — is worrying for the American manufacturer and the global aviation industry as well. And these events may prove to be far more damaging to Boeing than the ones in the 1990s. This because a few things have changed since. For one, commercial aviation has become incredibly safe. Back in the 1990s, there were a few large air crashes every year and while tragic, the flying public accepted the risk. But advancements in technology and the way aircraft crashes are investigated have made commercial air travel unbelievably safe. In 2017, there was not a single large passenger-carrying commercial aircraft that crashed. In addition, the aviation industry, too, grew several times over since the 1990s with air travel becoming a fact of life and not a luxury in countries like China and India. This, coupled with the growth of the mass media and the internet, air crashes, which have always been massive headline-grabbing incidents, have become a global phenomenon. So, the news of a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 jet crash in Indonesia last year made global headlines as did the supposed cause of the crash in initial reports. The Boeing 737 Max, as mentioned before, is the third iteration of the Boeing 737 from the time it was conceived in the 1960s. In addition to modern avionics and on-board systems, it has modern fuel-efficient engines. If you look at a picture of the early 737s, such as those operated by Indian Airlines in the 1980s and 1990s, you will notice that it had small pencil-like engines, compared to the comparatively large engines of today. This because modern aircraft turbine engines have what is called a high-bypass ratio. Basically, much of the air that is sucked into the engine is blown straight back out and only a small bit, around 10 per cent, actually goes into the core of the engine for combustion that drives the big fan in the front of the engine. In fact, it is not so much the exhaust that provides much of the power to modern aircraft but the huge fan at the front of the engine. Unfortunately, the Boeing 737, having been conceived in the 1960s, has a couple of shortcomings that were not found initially. One of the demerits is that the aircraft sits very close to the ground. Back in the early days, many small airports that the Boeing 737 flew into, did not have specialised ground equipment. Airlines spend millions of dollars to train the pilots so that they are able to fly a particular aircraft. One way Boeing wanted its customers to save cost was by keeping pilot-training similar between 737 Max and 737NG generation of aircraft so that pilots could switch between aircraft with comparative ease. This despite differences in characteristics of the two types of planes. Boeing claimed to have solved this by using a software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), that made both types of planes, despite having different flying dynamics, feel very similar to fly for pilots. This saved airlines millions in training costs and making the 737 Max appealing to existing operators of the Boeing 737NG. It seems increasingly likely that the fault in this software system is what might have caused both the Indonesian and Ethiopian accidents. Boeing’s initial reticence to ground the aircraft, pending the investigation and giving the aircraft a clean chit, impacted its reputation. Reports in American newspapers, including The Seattle Times, revealed that Boeing rushed the MCAS system into flight and effectively self-certified the software with a little oversight by American regulators. As the United States’ largest exporter of goods, Boeing is an essential part of the American economy. It has emerged that the US Government gave it a wide berth. That said, nobody is accusing Boeing of knowingly selling a faulty aircraft but such are the dynamics of global commercial aviation industry, despite it being an effective Coke vs Pepsi style duopoly between Boeing and European firm Airbus, it is as ferociously competitive as the war between the sellers of fizzy, sugary drinks. When Airbus announced the “new engine option” (Neo) variant on its 737 competitor Airbus A320 family, Boeing was forced to respond quickly. Both companies were modifying older designs in a money-saving move instead of designing new aircraft, given the huge capital costs of designing a new plane. Airbus had its own issues with the A320Neo and its engines that are best illustrated by issues suffered by Indian carriers IndiGo and GoAir. Boeing’s problem with the 737 Max has turned out to be far more serious. But the aircraft manufacturer has also suffered problems before with the 737 as this column has mentioned and the company thrived even after that. However, rushing an aircraft into service, as seems to be the case here, might have been a mistake. While we all live in an increasingly software-dependent world, we should all remember that software is not perfect and when there are human lives at stake, mistakes can prove to be fatal as they have. Hopefully, Boeing will fix this mess and we can go back to not worrying about the inherent dangers of travelling in a thin aluminum tube, hurtling through the atmosphere at incredible speeds, truly one of the engineering wonders of modern mankind.

 

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