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.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg says the successful return to service of the company’s 737 Max series depends on international consensus among the many national aviation authorities (NAA) that will see the aircraft operating in their countries.
Not just the US FAA.
As a reminder, the 737 Max series fleet was grounded in March as a result of findings from the investigations into to the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines fatal crashes, respectively in October 2018 and March this year.
Speaking this week at Boeing’s Seattle Delivery Centre, Muilenburg declined to predict a return-to-service date, explaining: “Dates are uncertain because we are going for a global recertification.” That means unanimity – near or absolute – has to be achieved.
He emphasised the point: “If we do not coordinate this [return to service] we may see some disaggregation, and I don’t think that’s a future any of us wants to see.”
Muilenburg is confident the combined hardware and software changes Boeing has developed for the Max will satisfy the FAA and the multinational Joint Operations Evaluation Board (JOEB).
The primary causal factor of the Lion Air crash was erroneous triggering of its manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) by a faulty angle of attack (AoA) sensor, according to the Indonesian final accident report. It is at the MCAS that Boeing’s efforts have been directed.
More on MCAS later.
Boeing test pilot and VP Operations Craig Bomben, who flew the 737 Max first flight and has coordinated development activity on the type since the accidents, described the essential difference between the original MCAS and Boeing’s proposed replacement: “We’ve moved from a very simple system to an intelligent system.”
In both the accidents MCAS – triggered by a faulty or damaged AoA sensor which wrongly indicated a high AoA – reacted by providing nose-down stabiliser rotation that took the pilots by surprise. They did not understand the reason it kicked in. Their efforts to reverse the strong nose-down pitch did not succeed, and because both these events occurred just after take-off, the loss of height quickly resulted in impact with the surface.
Bomben said the new “intelligent” system has two AoA sensors instead of one, and if their readings differ by 5.5deg or more, MCAS is not triggered at all.
But if it is correctly triggered, the system now “operates only once per AoA event”, according to Bomben, and when it does trigger stabiliser movement, it memorises how much displacement has taken place, so if it were triggered again it would take account of existing stabiliser displacement and will not apply more than a safe cumulative limit.
But why is MCAS – which is unique to the Max – required at all? Boeing insists it was not fitted as an anti-stall system, because the aircraft already has stall warnings and stick-shakers.
The purpose of fitting MCAS, Bomben explained, was to compensate for a slight change in the low-airspeed aerodynamics of the 737 Max compared with the NG.
MCAS was only designed to trigger in an unlikely (but obviously possible) combination of circumstances that can cause the aircraft’s centre of lift to move slightly further forward, altering the weight-balance equation. It only happens when the Max is at low airspeed with the flaps up, and is being flown manually.
At low airspeed (200kt or thereabouts) – and flapless – the aircraft would be at a high angle of attack and close to the stall. FAA regulations require that one of the cues to the pilot of the approaching stall is that there should be a linear increase in the required column force versus displacement response.
In the Max, however, at a certain point in this sequence the centre of lift shifts forward a little, providing a slight nose-up pitch force, therefore the stick force does not continue to increase, so MCAS is designed to kick in with some nose-down trim to restore the linear increase.
If MCAS doesn’t kick in, the aircraft is still easily controlled without it, but the required progressive stick-force cueing is lost.
In technical and regulatory terms, MCAS seems to be a lot of fuss for very little purpose, but the painful fact is that the original MCAS played its part in bringing down two aeroplanes and killing 346 people.
Muilenburg’s confidence in the fix is, so far, based on more than 100,000 hours of development work on the new solution, plus 1,850 flight hours using the new software, 1,200 hours of refining the results in the simulator, and 240 hours of regulatory scrutiny in the simulator.
Meanwhile, if Muilenburg cannot predict when the world will approve the 737 Max’s return to the air, what is happening to its production at present? The aircraft had won more than 5,000 orders, and fewer than 400 have been delivered.
The Max series, despite the grounding, continues to roll off the production line at Boeing’s Renton plant near Seattle, at a rate of 42 per month. The factory is capable of turning out 57 a month, but Boeing is keeping the rate lower for now. Despite this, Renton has seen no staff layoffs, says Boeing.
The completed aircraft, however, go into storage at Moses Lake or San Antonio desert sites, because the manufacturer’s own sites at Renton, Everett and Boeing Field are full.
Muilenburg said every 737 Max grounded or in store awaiting modification will have an individual entry into service programme, and that in the meantime the engines, systems and cabin of all the aircraft are regularly being run and maintained.
But will they still have that “new plane smell” when the airlines take delivery?