The Government is the Root of All Evil
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh claims 737 Max crashes may have been caused by Boeing trying to adhere to environmental regulations. He conveniently used the word, “may”.
Limbaugh is forever attempting to link all problems to the federal government. In the case of the 737 Max crashes he is either uneducated on the matter or purposefully ignoring the facts.
The irony in Rush’s statement is that the Government, as in the FAA, is at least partially responsible for the problems with the 737 Max. Not because of burdensome oversight and regulations, but because they had handed much of the oversight over to Boeing themselves.
Competition Drove Changes to 737
Boeing’s primary concern for updating the venerable 737 was not environmental regulation compliance but rather competition from the Airbus A220. The A220 had been upgraded with larger more fuel efficient engines and was selling like hotcakes and undercutting the traditional 737’s sales substantially. Not because it was more environmentally friendly, but because it was cheaper per passenger mile to fly than the 737.
To compete Boeing decided it would also add larger more fuel efficient engines to it’s 737. But there was a problem. The new fuel efficient engines were substantially larger than the old engines. Big enough that when mounted in the traditional position on the 737 wing it didn’t allow enough ground clearance. So Boeing engineered a solution. They created a new engine mount that literally pushed the engine farther forward of the wing and this allowed the engine to be lifted up. In fact it caused the engine to be partially above the wing. This new orientation created issues. When the plane was under hard acceleration it altered the aerodynamics of the plane and caused the plane’s nose to rotate up. It could push the nose up so far that it could cause the plane to stall.
The flight characteristics had changed enough that the current 737 pilots could easily accidentally stall the aircraft.
This was not something that in and of itself deemed the design unsafe, but it did mean that pilots would have to be re-certified to learn how to fly the new plane.
The executives of Boeing told the engineers that building a plane that would require airlines to re-certify their 737 pilots was not an option.
The upgraded Airbus A220 did not require the A220 pilots to be re-certified and Boeing didn’t want the expense of this to hinder their sales.
The engineers were also told that re-engineering the entire aircraft was not financially feasible. They needed to make the new engines work on the old aircraft if Boeing was going be able to compete with Airbus.
The engineers at Boeing hit upon a solution. Create software that would control the pitch of the aircraft and make it “seem” to the pilots that it flew like the traditional 737. With the software automatically dampening the planes natural tendency to want to lift it’s nose, it would seem that it flew very similarly to the original 737. They named this new system the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS.
Worried that highlighting the existence of this software/system might cause the FAA to question whether this plane actually flew like the original 737, Boeing buried it’s existence in the technical details of the manual and did not easily provide information how to disable it. MCAS was also set it up so that it would not turn off when the traditional autopilot was disengaged. They were worried that pilots would accidentally stall the aircraft with the autopilot disengaged, so MCAS stayed engaged even when the autopilot system was deactivated.
Prior to flying the 737 Max pilots would take a short course on the new plane. They could take the course on their iPad. It would never mention MCAS, or how to disengage it.
Unfortunately the MCAS software/system was implemented poorly. One of its glaring flaws was that there was just one sensor for critical airspeed measurements. If this sensor failed the software would assume the plane was stalling and automatically push the nose down. With no backup sensors there was no other feedback to warn the plane that in fact it was just a faulty sensor.
With the single faulty airspeed sensor telling the MCAS system that the plane was flying dangerously slow and the system seeing that the engines were already at maximum thrust it had but one option to increase airspeed, push the nose down. It would do this over and over, overriding the pilots inputs to pull the nose up. Pilots were rightfully confused. Worse, when they disabled auto pilot and assumed they were the only ones controlling the aircraft the MCAS system would continue to automatically push its nose down.
Eventually the plane would enter such a steep dive that there was no way to pull the plane out of the dive and the plane would dive into the ground.
This is the scenario that is assumed to have doomed the two 737 Max planes that crashed. It is assumed that the single airspeed sensor that fed info into MCAS failed on both these airplanes.
How did such a glaring oversight as not having backup airspeed data for MCAS to analyze make it onto a production airplane?
Lack of Oversight
The development of the 737 Max and its MCAS system happened at a time when the FAA had handed over the certification of aircraft and their systems to the aircraft manufacturers themselves. This was done to speed up the approval of new systems and aircraft. So when Boeing deemed MCAS safe that was all that the FAA required. No one else ever looked at it again. No one at the FAA would examine the system at all. Therefore no second set of eyes would question the fact that there was no backup for the crucial airspeed sensor, something that was considered standard practice in any critical aircraft system.
That’s the real story. If anything it was the LACK of government oversight that allowed this system to be implemented with its critical flaw(s). It was the government that turned over the job of certifying many aspects of aircraft design to the manufacturer. So if Boeing said the system was safe, the FAA took their word for it without little input or questions or for that matter authority to demand changes. That authority had been stripped away to help manufacturers become more competitive.
The Bottom Line
The 737 Max was NOT engineered poorly because Boeing was tying to meet some over reaching government environmental standard. It was engineered poorly because Boeing was trying rush out a new aircraft at a low cost of development to compete with a competitor and the government had stepped back from it’s role of double checking the systems that aircraft manufacturers developed.
Why Rush Limbaugh felt the need to ignore the facts and instead make his highly misleading comment can only be known by him. But I suspect it may be because he is once again high on Oxycontin and unable to think coherently. That statement may be more accurate than his statement.