Max – poised for relaunch?

Very soon – perhaps this week – the US Federal Aviation Administration is expected to declare Boeing’s 737 Max safe to fly again in America’s skies, lifting nearly two years of compulsory grounding.

Such an event would normally be a subject of press fanfare, but Covid-19’s near-immobilisation of commercial air transport activity worldwide has rendered the Max’s long grounding almost invisible to the non-specialist media and the public.

The airlines have been able to work not only without the 387 Maxes already delivered, but without the additional 450 that have rolled off Boeing’s Renton, Washington production line since then – only to be delivered straight into desert storage.

The changes being applied – at the FAA’s behest – to this latest version of the highly successful 737 series are partly to correct design flaws that allowed two notorious fatal crashes to occur, but some additional modifications will bring the type fully in line with modern safety regulations that this marque had previously been permitted to avoid under “grandfather rights”.

Once the Max fleet had been grounded, it made sense to incorporate not only the changes required to make it safe, but also improvements that would prolong the marque’s commercial desirability for as long as possible. That is essential because Boeing’s next product in this market sector will be entirely new, and will not be launched for some years.

The truth is that the 737 line has reached the end of its viable development life, but given the fact that it has been in continuous production since 1966 through four iterations, that should not be too surprising.

Basically, the Max marque was intended as a stop-gap while Boeing came up with a “new mid-market airplane”, but when the Max hit the marketplace it was astoundingly successful. Its price was right, its economics excellent, its delivery guaranteed, and it was a known and trusted quantity. And all this despite the fact that it is an old fashioned, mechanically controlled machine surrounded by digitally controlled competition.

This relaunch of the Max into an airline world decimated by Covid-19 is going to be watched with bated breath, not just by Boeing, but by the whole industry.

Public perception of the aircraft is key. Will they see it as safe? Will it be safe?

As soon as the FAA announces the detail of its decision, the answers will be here.

How to infuriate a traditional Boeing pilot

Today I was replying to a message from a good friend in Maryland, and found that I’d written to him what I have wanted to put up here for a while.

He had picked up on something I wrote in FlightGlobal/Flight International a month or so ago about Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun’s thoughts on the kind of control interface that would be best for pilots flying Boeing’s next clean-sheet-of-paper aeroplane in tomorrow’s skies.

This is what I suggested to him:

“I don’t actually know what Boeing will do with the pilot’s “joystick” or yoke equivalent in its next-generation aircraft. My observation that you picked up on was based entirely on the musings of Boeing’s new boss Dave Calhoun when he suggested they might need to have to do a complete re-think of how to tomorrow’s pilots should interface with tomorrow’s aeroplanes.

The thing about the airline piloting job now is that it has drastically changed. Even aircraft originally designed in the 1960s, like the 737 series, in their latest versions put just as many computers between the pilots and the flying control surfaces as Airbus does with its FBW fleet. So any remaining efforts to fool the pilots into believing that the control feedback they feel is the real thing is just artifice. And like any part of the system, the artificial feedback can fail and thus mislead.

The only aeroplanes in which Bob-Hoover type stick-and-rudder skills were ever really needed is manually controlled aerobatic machines flown in perfect VMC during a display. Modern combat aircraft, built for aerodynamic instability so as to be manoeuvrable, have had FBW sidesticks for decades, and the pilot’s main task is to direct the mission and its defence, not to use finely-honed skills to keep it flying. The stick is just a device for pointing such an aircraft where you want it to go.

In an airliner you were never supposed to handle it as if you were Bob Hoover flying a display. Nowadays, if you have to fly it manually at all – and 99% of the time you are told not to – your job is ABSOLUTELY NOT to fly it by the seat of your pants, it’s to select the attitude/power combination you need to get you elegantly from where you are to where your passengers wish to go. I can tell you from experience, a spring-loaded sidestick is an easier device than a yoke for selecting an attitude, and as for selecting power, throttle levers do the same everywhere, back-driven or not.

So I’d guess Boeing probably will go down that track. Pilots who still need to be flattered by being presented with controls that look like the old fashioned ones but do not work like them are no longer in the right job!”

No pilot/aeroplane interface is perfect. But choosing the best one for the next Boeing is going to be an interesting job for Calhoun.