“Disclaimer, this review reflects the opinions of the author about the Boeing 737 MAX saga and the recent Netflix documentary about it. It does not in any way truly reflect the global opinion of the Boeing 737 MAX or The Boeing Company itself, so feel free to interpret the facts and hope you are more informed through the article!
On Friday 18 February, Netflix released a documentary titled “Downfall – The Case Against Boeing”. The documentary lays out the summary of the events surrounding the Boeing 737 MAX, Boeing’s corporate culture, and the fallout from the 737 MAX crashes. Directed by the acclaimed documentary director Rory Kennedy, this film sports an ensemble of notable figures in the aviation industry, like Captain John Cox, who was one of the major investigators in the Boeing 737 rudder hard-over accidents, and Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who orchestrated the miraculous dead-stick water landing of US Airways Flight 1549. It also featured the bereaved relatives of the accident victims, as well former engineers from Boeing. The documentary proved to be a hit with the audiences, garnering a 91% audience rating and an 88% score on Rotten Tomatoes. This op-ed and review provide an in-depth look into the contents of the documentary, and how it compares with the facts of the sordid saga of the Boeing 737 MAX.
A brief overview of the Boeing 737 MAX crashes
Launched in 2010, the Boeing 737 MAX was set out by Boeing to compete against the recently released Airbus A320neo series. Fitted out with modified landing gear and state-of-the-art LEAP engines, the MAX was promised by Boeing to have fuel efficiencies that rival that of the Airbus A320neos, and like the neo series, the MAX required no pilot training to transit from the Boeing 737 NG Series.
The first Boeing 737 MAX, “The Spirit of Renton”, was unveiled to the public on August 13, 2015, with the first test flight 5 months later. 15 months later, with the FAA certification proudly presented to Boeing, the first MAX aircraft was delivered to Malindo Air. The MAX proved to be an instant hit with airlines across the world, rapidly becoming the best-selling commercial jet of all time.
Less than 2 years later, however, it all came crashing down when Lion Air Flight 610, a 2-year-old 737 MAX, plunged into the Java Sea shortly after take-off on October 29th, 2018, taking the lives of all 189 passengers and crew. 5 months later, and with the investigation of Lion Air 610 still underway, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a 4-month-old 737 MAX, smashed into a field outside of Addis Ababa.
Preliminary findings during the Lion Air crash uncovered an obscure piece of automation, MCAS, or the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, that was embedded into the trim control system. MCAS regulates the aircraft’s pitch in the event of a high angle-of-attack (AoA) and an impending stall. The new LEAP engines installed on the MAX had an unintended effect on the 60-year old airframe design; it made the aircraft tend to pitch up steeply, putting it at risk into a stall. By linking MCAS to the AoA sensors, it can control the trim system to prevent excessive upward pitching and prevent a stall from occurring. However, the MCAS system on the 737 MAX was linked to only one AoA sensor, a major breach in engineering basics where a safety-critical system must have at least one backup. On Flight 610 (and investigators would discover the same thing happened on Flight 302), the critical AoA sensor failed, and continually sent erroneous high AoA readings to MCAS, sending the system into overdrive and constantly trimming the aircraft for a full pitch down attitude.
Personal take of the Netflix documentary
This documentary, to the general layman, would definitely invoke anti-Boeing sentiment, as the film portrayed the decisions surrounding the Boeing 737 MAX as callous and to a certain degree, irresponsible. Indeed, the executive decisions to rush the Boeing 737 MAX design inevitably put a tremendous strain on the engineers and designers to quickly develop a competitive design and roll out the prototype within 2 years of its announcement. And to drive home the human toll the disasters had included in the documentary were interviews with the wife of the late Bhavye Suneja, captain of the ill-fated Lion Air 610, and Michael Stumo, the father of one of the victims aboard Ethiopian Airlines 302.
The documentary also portrayed the aftermath of the two crashes, how Boeing attempted to paint the crashes as the result of “pilots from developing countries” being unable to handle the technologies on-board
The documentary also delved deep into the inner workings of Boeing, from its initial beginnings into the jet age, to its development of the Boeing 737 MAX program. There were interviews with numerous ex-Boeing employees, many of whom felt the company had changed significantly following the merger with McDonnell Douglas, a company with a stained reputation in the commercial aviation industry.
The Legacy of McDonnell Douglas
As someone who also watches the air disaster series “Mayday: Air Crash Investigations”, one can immediately draw parallels to the safety incidents that plagued the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 during its early years of introduction in the early 1970s. A poorly designed cargo door locking system lead to the mid-air separation of the door from its airframe on two occasions. The first incident, onboard American Airlines Flight 96, resulted in a successful, albeit harrowing, emergency landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. 2 years later, the crew aboard Turkish Airlines Flight 981 were not so lucky; their DC-10 smashed into a forest outside Ermenonville in France, resulting in the deaths of 346 people on board. The lengthy investigation and the eventual court trials and lawsuits that followed revealed a gross downplay of the safety concerns by McDonnell Douglas, despite it knowing the flaw in the door design as far back as the development stage of the DC-10. Following the completion of investigations into Flight 96, McDonnell Douglas prevented a major grounding of DC-10s through a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the FAA, preventing any of the recommendations from the NTSB from being implemented immediately.
Some missing facts
A critical piece of information left out by the documentary was the fact that the FAA regulation and auditing were severely compromised. A combination of poor funding and a lack of manpower resulted in the FAA having to rely on manufacturers (including Boeing) to perform its own auditing and inspections. Engineers and quality managers were sub-contracted from Boeing into the FAA's service to perform certification of the “non-critical systems” in the Boeing 737 MAX program. However, the very nature of how Boeing characterized MCAS resulted in MCAS being classified as non-critical and therefore falling out from the scrutiny of the FAA.
“Downfall - The Case Against Boeing” is indeed a generally well-researched documentary on the fallout of the Boeing 737 MAX. It successfully captured the lead-up to the development of the MAX, from the merger with McDonnell Douglas to the unveiling of the Airbus A320neo.
Indeed, my own wife watched the show and commented on how Boeing can be so callous to the design, and how they attempted to place the blame on the pilots when it was their own aircraft automation that caused the accident. This anti-Boeing sentiment is probably the most likely outcome of this exposé, and this public anger towards how Boeing handled the entire situation can certainly be understood. However, as a fellow engineer working in a big corporation, I can certainly sympathize with the engineers at Boeing, the pressures of keeping to schedule, and the unbelievable amount of stress that comes when that schedule has deviated. We must bear in mind that the majority of Boeing is made up of engineers and technicians, and many attempted to sound the alarm of the potential problems with the MAX’s design.
In the event of the two crashes and the subsequent grounding, the recertified MAX can be said to be significantly safer, given it was subjected to significantly great scrutiny from aviation regulators, as well as greater levels of redundancy to prevent future accidents. There were also changes to how the FAA regulates Boeing, with the latest news being that all new Boeing 787 Dreamliners to be vetted and inspected by the FAA directly before delivery to airlines. Whether or not these changes will be permanent, time will tell, but what is definite is that while Boeing’s reputation took a significant beating, it still remains as one of the dominant companies in commercial aviation, with hundreds of orders will streaming in for their Boeing 737 MAX, Dreamliners and the future Boeing 777X program.