Boeing released it’s newest commercial airliner, the 737 family’s latest variant the MAX and it entered first commercial service in May 2017. About a year later in October 2018, a Lion Air flight in Indonesia crashed into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff. As a long-time aviation enthusiast, I track such events and especially of a brand new airplane being lost shortly after takeoff on a clear morning raised a number of red flags.
What followed was a blame the pilots episode out in the public, while something else was percolating internally at Boeing, at the FAA, and in other areas where knowledge was had about inherent flaws in this new airplane. As things moved (too) slowly forward after the wake of the Lion Air crash with the promise of some fixes to a critical piece of software that controls some aspects of the MAX’s flight operations, a second crash of a brand new MAX occurred in March 2019 in Ethiopia again shortly after takeoff on a clear day.
This was enough for most everyone around the world to understand there is something terribly wrong here. But, not Boeing, nor the US government agencies such as the FAA. Only after a humiliating instance of virtually the entire world grounding the plane and not allowing it to fly within their air system did the FAA finally ground the plane. All the while, Boeing strongly attested that the plane was fit to fly and all but plainly said that the accidents were the results of poor pilots.
Between the two crashes, 346 people lost their lives in brand new state-of-the-art planes from the arguably the best airline plane maker on the planet. Aviation beat author, Peter Robinson, leverages hundreds of hours of interviews with people in the industry, from Boeing, the FAA, and elsewhere to assemble the story of how we ended up in these two tragedies.
(you can click the image below to purchase the book from Amazon)
Between the Lines
This is a powerful book as the author digs deep into the company behind these planes, the government agency that is supposed to regulate towards safety to ensure such events don’t occur, and of course the people element with personal stories of those that died in the crashes and the surviving family members that have to deal with it all.
A part of the sub-title of this book that I didn’t grasp fully was how much treatment the author was going to get into in terms of Boeing, the company itself, and its history. It goes deep and at times I didn’t know if this is where I wanted to go. However, it’s essential to understand where Boeing came from as a company, the evolving culture, the critical transitions of top leadership, and the germane corporate environment we’ve had in the past several decades. All of it is essential in crafting a vision of how the vaunted (almost mythic) plane maker Boeing can go from an icon of safety and engineering price to an entity that not only delivers these tragedies, but also is operating in a way that it doesn’t understand and in a sense may not even care why it is so.
These are powerful views, but Robison presents his case on the what, who, when, and why throughout decades of a march within Boeing (and the FAA) towards these exact events inevitably occurring. The key now is if we learn from these mistakes and make changes in the areas necessary to prevent them in the future. Certainly with the Coronavirus pandemic interceding right into the heart of this topic, much energy has been lost on this front and it remains to be seen if all that should be done will be done in the future.