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Aircraft certification process in the US is an accident by design

The tragic B737 Max-8 crashes has put the spotlight on possible design flaws and a cosy vetting process that failed.

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The B737 has racked up a phenomenal 10,000 deliveries before the fleet was grounded worldwide by mid-March 2019.

IN 1959, a French passenger plane took the aviation world by storm with its sleek design and rear-mounted twin engines. Passengers flocked to enjoy the novel Caravelle jet service as airlines raced to place orders, abandoning the crash-plagued de Havilland Comet, which had spectacularly ushered in the passenger jet era in 1952.

With the BAC One-Eleven already in the air and the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 inexorably grinding through its design phase, Boeing had decided by 1960 that it urgently needed a short-haul "feeder" jet to complement its mid-range Boeing 707-120. That was when the B737 idea sprang to life.

While late to the party with its initial order placed in 1965 and first flight in 1967, the single aisle B737 has gone on to become the most successful aircraft model in history, on a par with the legendary twin-prop workhorse, the Dakota DC-3, and the B747 jumbo.

The B737 has racked up a phenomenal 10,000 deliveries - and 4,600 more in its groaning order book, prompting the company to ramp up production to 52 aircraft a month. Yet by mid-March 2019, the B737 Max fleet had been grounded worldwide. The fast unfolding script was unusual in that industry safety bellwether, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), was the last to act as Boeing lobbied feverishly to keep its planes in the air. Finally, as countries from Canada to China grounded their fleets, US President Donald Trump stepped in to deliver the coup de grace.

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The Ethiopian Airlines flight that plunged from the skies on March 10 killing all 157 on board eerily mirrored the Oct 29, 2018 Lion Air Java Sea crash. And it set alarm bells ringing around the world with major repercussions for the aircraft manufacturer. Confronted by a second fatal incident involving a B737 Max-8 and riled at Boeing's suggestion that poor maintenance or pilot error may have played a crucial role, Lion Air moved to reconsider its US$22 billion 200-aircraft order. Garuda, the Indonesian national carrier, may follow suit.

Has technological wizardry got in the way of human skill and judgement? The Max-8 is an impressive plane but, as with its predecessors on the 737 line, it had niggles. Sporting larger repositioned engines (altering the weight balance) and a naturally high angle of attack, low-power performance stuttered with a tendency to stall at slower speeds.

Boeing's fix was to install an all-new MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System) designed to bring an aircraft's nose down to increase speed and augment lift in low-speed situations. During the flaps-out take-off phase as the ill-fated planes banked sharply before gaining speed, the MCAS would have been triggered.

The MCAS is a major new addition to the 737. Incredibly, it was not highlighted to pilots who, even after the Lion Air incident, were unaware of this feature or why it had been introduced despite a belated bulletin from Boeing.

In the early 1990s, two mysterious crashes in America involving a United B737-200 and a US Air B737-300 had aviation circles stumped until investigators traced it to a faulty valve that caused a rudder malfunction. Three other crashes - China Southern in 1992, a Sahara Airlines training flight in 1994, and a SilkAir flight over Indonesia in December 1997 - followed in alarmingly similar fashion. In each case the results were either inconclusive or cited pilot error or "intent" (as in the case of SilkAir). The Singapore carrier's insurer took the matter to court in Los Angeles, and Boeing eventually retracted its "pilot suicide" claim, arriving at an out-of-court settlement.

What has emerged over the years is a pattern of obfuscation by Boeing; its consistent deflection of media discussion to pilot incompetence or poor maintenance; intense political lobbying by the aircraft manufacturer (a major player in US military contracts); and a dangerously cosy relationship with the FAA.

The Washington Post reports that in October 2017, Brazilian airline regulators checking the new B737 Max-8 concluded that they needed "over 60 operational changes" including having pilots familiarise themselves with the MCAS with additional supervised flight hours. At about this time, the FAA published its Max-8 pilot training guidelines where "it did not once mention the anti-stall system".

This egregious lapse is easier to comprehend when one looks at the manner in which the FAA manages its certification procedure. Strapped for funds and lacking manpower as its remit grew dramatically following the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the agency outsourced critical tasks and vetting. This has resulted in an absurd situation where Boeing engineers perform tests on their own aircraft while other Boeing personnel certify the models "acting as representatives" of the FAA (all the while pressured by airline management - which pays their salaries - to speed up the process).

Boeing is not the only company allowed to self-certify its products. As many as 80 different companies are afforded the same privilege. FAA engineers expressed their disapproval of this procedure as early as in 2012. The discussion was shelved.

The Max-8 basic fuselage has not changed from the first 737s though the cigar tube has grown longer to accommodate 210 passengers at 39.52 m in length. The Max-10 will accommodate 230. The original aircraft seated 85. The larger General Electric engines on the Max-8 necessitated a repositioning of the mounts and an elevation of the nose wheel to provide the engine housing sufficient clearance on a low-slung plane. A toxic combination of design flaws and sloppy certification raises questions for not just the Max-8 but other multi-generation aircraft that have outgrown their original design parameters.

Passenger safety will require a muscular new approach to oversight and the swift dismantling of the nexus between the examiner and examinee. The regulatory framework must look at the integrity of new aircraft designs as well as seemingly innocuous cost savings on assembly lines that may have a multiplier effect on product performance. The focus must be on saving lives, not cost. Planes that fall out of the skies do not sell.

READ MORE: Boeing's CEO speaks: 'Our hearts are heavy'