Significance of the Boeing 737 Max Crashes to Engineering Philosophy
Date of Submission
The Technical, Economic, and Sociopolitical Context
The Boeing 737 airplane had a remarkable history of offering efficient service and a good record of safety. The safety was guaranteed by a system that ensured the pilot had a flight control system that provided the pilot could execute direct control on the airplane and receive positive mechanical feedback in real-time. This interactive philosophy was more of human factors and worked well for a long time. When the new model, Boeing 737 Max, was introduced, the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which facilitates the automatic flight stabilizing in case of system controls, replaced the human management.
To everyone’s surprise, the new generation 737 Max crashed twice within four months in October 2018 and March 2019. These two incidents were associated with both technical failure and human factors. I decided to explore the case of the Boeing 737 Max because it represents critical issues of engineering philosophy in the aviation sector. Nowadays, airplane crashes have become too many, and we all know that the chances of a single passenger surviving the crash are minimal. After every crash, reports reveal that most of those accidents resulted from human errors or technical issues that could have been mitigated.
Travis, an experienced software developer and a pilot for thirty years, examines how the technical and economic contexts relate to Boeing 737 Max failure. To gain a competitive advantage over the competitor and appeal more to its customers, the 737 Max model focused on ensuring flexible and simple systems while expanding the power of its engines (Travis, 2019). In addition, the simplicity of control would ensure that only two cockpit crews were needed instead of three or more. This factor was seen as an economic aspect of saving the cost of operation to the company. The ever-growing technology convinced Boeing to consider fitting larger engines in the 737 Max model to increase the power and minimize fuel consumption. In addition, the sociopolitical factors exerted a lot of pressure on the company to design an attractive plane that is more appealing to its customers and dominates the aviation market. As a result, there were a lot of mechanical and electronic complexities fitted in the 737 Max generation.
The fitting of more significant engines on the wings of 737 Max brought complexities such that the wings needed to be designed in a certain way to minimize aerodynamics stall. The pilots of 737 Max struggled to control the plane, especially at high angles of attack. The airplane pitched up faster than expected when power was applied. The engineering team and the management didn’t consider starting from scratch and designing the appropriate frame of the plane; instead introduced the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was considered cheaper than redesigning the entire plane and equally an effective solution to the present mechanical issue.
The presence and importance of MCAS in 737 MAX was underrated because the new model was considered to have the exact technical specifications of the old model. There was no clear documentation of the operation of MCAS, and those pilots who were handling the 737 models were believed to be in a position to handle 737 Max comfortably. The company played down the importance of training the pilot on handling MCAS in 737Max and took advantage of maximum profits due to reduced costs. When the MCAS senses that the angle of attack is higher than average, it automatically commands the airplane trim system to lower the nose, and the pilot’s control columns are lowered. Since pilots were not trained on these adjustments, the majority of them would lose the “natural feeling” and panic in an event when the autopilot control fails, and now the human pilot is needed to execute the physical command. There were no rudimentary provisions for comparing outputs of the sensors and the angle of attack (Travis, 2019).
The crew in the Boeing 737 Max crash were short of confidence and failed to respond to the failure of automatic control. When the plane pitched at an altitude of 1,500 feet, the crew continued adjusting the throttle on several occasions in a panic mode. The captain had no clear memory of the checklist; therefore, he confirmed from the Quick Reference Handbook. He was unable to find the appropriate controls in the checklist, which made him panic even more. The system displayed multiple errors as the pilot continued applying various controls, leading to the crash. If the crews were trained to respond to such situations, probably 737 Max would have survived Campell, 2019).
It is understood that Boeing had panicked after Airbus stormed the aviation industry with a new model of airplane, A320neo, which was fuel-efficient. A week later, the company registered a record-breaking sale of 667 aircraft of A320neo generation. Boeing wanted to keep in touch with Airbus that exhibited a real threat in the aviation market. This factor hindered human judgment and decisions while manufacturing the 737 Max generation. The company’s management was under massive pressure to deliver a better choice to the market and remain the leader. The risk management team in Boeing company intentionally bypassed the essential principles such as identifying potential hazards, determining their probability of occurrence and severity, the appropriate mitigation strategies, and monitoring.
Due to poor hazard analysis, the cockpit crew could not make the design decision available in the event of loss of control. There was an option of overriding an automatic trim control by just yanking back the knob. This clear human philosophy should have been exhibited in the cockpit (Smith, 2013). Similarly, the pilots could have considered disabling the MCAS because the Boeing 737 Max airplane allowed that. This application is regarded as a primary diagnosis that works best to respond to similar issues. For instance, the Ethiopian Airlines pilots faced a similar challenge and could comfortably diagnose the problem perfectly to gain control. However, the Boeing 737 Max crew could be excused because they didn’t receive appropriate controls and procedural training on the 737 Max generation airplanes.
The case study of Boeing 737 Max crashes is relevant in understanding the tenets of engineering philosophy, roles, responsibilities, and liabilities of each party involved in the case. Engineers should fully understand their technical and social obligations while designing machines, automobiles, structures, and buildings. With the information I gained from this case, I have made a step ahead towards building my career.
Benjamin. (2019). The Boeing 737 Max crashes represent a failure of systems engineering » Engineering for Humans. Engineering for Humans. Retrieved 13 November 2021, from https://www.engineeringforhumans.com/view-all-posts/737-max-a-failure-of-systems-engineering/.
Campbell, D. (2019). The many human errors that brought down the Boeing 737 Max. The Verge. Retrieved 13 November 2021, from https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/2/18518176/boeing-737-max-crash-problems-human-error-mcas-faa.
Smith, P. (2013). Cockpit Confidential. Sourcebooks.
Travis, G. (2019). How the Boeing 737 Max Disaster Looks to a Software Developer. IEEE Spectrum. Retrieved 12 November 2021, from https://spectrum.ieee.org/how-the-boeing-737-max-disaster-looks-to-a-software-developer#toggle-gdpr.