What do the Boeing 737, 747, 787 have in common with the 737 Max? Novel designs that air safety officials found “flawed.” But that’s not where the similarity stops. A look back over a half century of deadly crashes and repetitive near-disasters reveals a pattern of denial by Boeing when aspects of its airliner designs are questioned.
This week what’s making news is the discovery by a Federal Aviation Administration test pilot that there is a potentially catastrophic problem on the supposedly fixed system controlling the Max’s flight control computer. Details of the problems vary but Jon Ostrower’s news site, The Air Current reports some specifics from the test.
Boeing steadfastly refuses to acknowledge it might have gotten something wrong. The list below takes us back to the sixties when the planemaker brought its 737 and the 747 to market, then passes through the creation of Boeing’s newest jumbo jet, the 787 Dreamliner to get us to where we are today with the 737 Max. This list might leave you asking yourself, “What’s wrong with Boeing?” I know plenty of people are lobbing that question at me.
Boeing 737 – received operating certificate in 1967
Rudder – During the certification process, Boeing convinced the FAA to allow a novel design that put rudder control and its backup system in the same unit. To get past the requirement for redundancy, Boeing convinced the FAA that in the unlikely case of a loss of both primary and secondary rudder control, pilots could still use the ailerons. What was unappreciated by FAA and presumably Boeing was that if the rudder failed at slower speeds the ailerons would not have sufficient power to offset the force of the rudder. Two fatal crashes, one in 1991 and the second in 1994 along with several attention-getting near disasters were met with Boeing insisting there was nothing wrong with the plane. Pilots had mishandled the controls. Then, in October 1996, Ed Kikta, a young Boeing engineer, was reexamining data and discovered that a fail-safe mechanism in the rudder control unit did not work as it should.
Boeing 747 – received operating certificate 1969
Fuel tank flammability – The 747 jumbo jet and many other models produced by Boeing feature a large fuel tank in the space between the wings— the structural center of the plane. This tank was designed to double as a heat sink for the air- handling equipment located below. But it worked that way only when there was fuel to absorb the heat. When the tank was empty, the fumes would heat up like a giant saucepan sitting on a lit burner of a stove. The fumes (aka ullage) could get hot enough to ignite.
Twenty-three years ago next month, TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 departing New York for Paris, exploded 13 minutes into the flight, killing all 230 people onboard. During the probe, investigators learned that the risk of a fuel tank explosion was known to Boeing during the design of the 747, but the company disregarded technology that would have eliminated the threat. There’s no question Boeing was aware of the problem as far back as 1979 when military operators of the 747 complained of the tank heating to temperatures that risked explosion. And yet, even after TWA 800 crashed, the company did not notify investigators. Read Michael Laris’ story in the Washington Post to learn how Boeing continued for more than a decade to obstruct efforts to fix a problem of its own making.
Boeing 787 – received operating certificate 2011
Lithium-ion battery smoke events – The most recent parallel to the 737 is the 2013 grounding of Boeing’s newest widebody design, the 787 Dreamliner. After a splashy introduction to the world, airlines flying the 787 were forced to take them out of service after the plane’s novel lithium-ion batteries began malfunctioning on two airliners operated by Japanese carriers. In 2006, when Boeing selected this controversial and volatile power source, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission was recalling the consumer version of these batteries by the tens of millions.
They were bursting into flames and emitting toxic smoke. Still, Boeing stuck with its decision to use it on the Dreamliner. Nothing in the regulations at the time addressed this “novel technology” and less than a year later, the FAA, used aviation’s four-letter F-word, fire, and some other bad words, such as flammability, explosion, and toxic gases and told Boeing it would have to make sure cells didn’t heat up uncontrollably, cause the failure of adjacent cells, catch fire, explode, or emit toxic gases.
The planemaker was still a long way away from being able to accomplish this when the Dreamliner went into service. In fact, it never did. Instead after the fleet spent four months on the ground, Boeing encased the batteries in boxes and sent the 787 back into the skies. If the batteries are failing to perform to the FAA’s mandate, we’ll never know, as the company is not required to inform authorities when the batteries fail.
Which brings us to the present. There are about a half dozen investigations now underway, including those specifically examining what happened in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines disasters. If regulators, lawmakers and criminal investigators hope for a comprehensive understanding, they should look at decades of Boeing decisions, not just the ones made on the Max.
I am a journalist, a published author, speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.