Summary – In the previous article we discussed automated flight systems in general. In this article we examine in detail a nominal systemic ‘tweek’ in the flight automation by Boeing of their dominant 737-series regional airliner which has developed into a major scandal. Boeing is as synonymous with commercial aviation as Bell is to helicopters. They invented the quality systems on which ISO-9000 is based. So, how is it that they appear to have lost the plot in this regard? It is a long story, so we shall do it in three parts, starting with the historical background leading to the Boeing Max-series development.
Part-I: Boeing Aviation Company – from Child to Man
To understand the tragic 737-Max saga, it is fruitful to go back a Century to the very beginning of Boeing Company to get a truer perspective on the recent events. So this article starts with a brief history leading up to the Max’s production before analysing the elements of the scandal itself. The Boeing company’s origins in Seattle were not in aviation but in lumber and cabinet manufacture, as a family firm owned by William E. Boeing.
As a hobby Bill Boeing learned to fly and owned his own single seater trainer. Then, with a navy buddy, Lt. Conrad Westervelt, in 1916 they built a two-seater ‘B&W’ Seaplane to fly off Lake Union nearby. Through Conrad’s connections, the US Navy showed interest in it, so a second improved unit was built and the Boeing Aviation Co. was formed to manage it. The prototype was named Bluebell and the second one Mallard. However the Navy sale was not consummated and, ultimately, both units were procured by a flying school in New Zealand which was training pilots for the Great War. Post-war the aircraft were hired by the Royal Mail in NZ for express deliveries during which time the aircraft achieved an altitude record of 6500 feet.
Such suggests that the B&W Seaplane was a solid design, as reflected subsequently in the technical excellence and enthusiasm that became the DNA of Bill Boeing’s Company. Early in the 1929 Depression the company merged with a half dozen other aviation companies, including Pratt & Whitney, to form the United Aircraft & Transport Corp. A few years later, this was dissolved by government decree into three elements – United Airlines (operations), United Technologies (Technology development) and Boeing (Aircraft manufacture), all of which continue to this day.
Replica of ‘Bluebell’ the first Boeing aircraft – the B&W Seaplane –
at the Museum of Flight in Seattle
Until WW-II, it was typically Europe that provided the lead in aircraft development with the USA generally optimising those designs and their manufacture. The French built the first production mono-plane (the Nieuport Fighter), the Brits developed the first jet engine (the Whittle in 1933) and the Germans with the first jet aircraft (Heinkle-178 in 1939) as well as rocketry (V-I in 1944). The first mass-production jet was the British Meteor bomber (March 1943): the first US jet was the Bell XP.59-A (1942) powered by Whittle engines built under license by GE.
Similarly, it was the 1930s British Avro, Vickers and Handley Page medium-heavy bomber designs, which evolved into the Wellington / Lancaster bombers and more importantly, across the pond, formed the basis of the Boeing B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ heavy bomber – actually an early Boeing technical disaster. Rather than through any incompetence, this was a factor of their technical enthusiasm for stretching the norms of aviation technology. The B-17 was the largest, the fastest, the highest flying and with the biggest payload in this class – all far exceeding all the parameters of the military RFP (Request for Proposals) as issued by the US Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the USAF) in the late ‘30s and to which the B-17 was the Boeing Company response. As such it was also technically, significantly more complicated. So it was that, during a display to the client, the prototype crashed due to elements of the start-up checks having been overlooked, killing the Boeing Chief Test Pilot and an Airforce General – the head of the procurement committee – flying as a passenger in the Co-pilot’s seat. Not surprisingly, the first contract for 200 units was thus awarded to Douglas (the predecessor to MD), at that time, Boeing’s main rival. The enduring result of that crash was the birth of the aircraft check-list. Not surprisingly, subsequent contracts went to Boeing and ultimately, more than 12,000 B-17 units were built.
The growth in aviation sophistication and capability engendered by the needs of global warfare led to the first jet Airliner (the British Comet-1952) which, after a series of fatal accidents due to metal fatigue, in 1954 was grounded. In the years it took to find the root cause (square windows) and to change to the current oval design, the following Boeing Jet Airliner (the iconic B.707-1957) was able to catch up and subsequently dominate the market. Bill Boeing, unfortunately, passed away shortly before its maiden flight, so he did not witness the fruits of a lifetime of innovation. But the Boeing Company never looked back, dominating world aviation for the next two generations – although again, by stretching aviation limits, the very large B-747 ‘Jumbo-Jet’ (1969) did come within a whisker of bankrupting them.
Beauty and the Beast – an unhappy ending
A most significant event in Boeing’s subsequent history was the 1996 merger with it’s former rival Douglas – now McDonald-Douglas (MD). This was a function of a so-called ‘Last Supper’ in Reagan’s White House, where it was decreed that the dozen US aircraft manufactures should be reduced by half. Due to the MD widebody iteration, the DC-10, being significantly less successful than the Jumbo, MD was financially the weaker partner in this merger. Accordingly, Boeing was the lead with the merged entity assuming its name.
Having begun as a hobby-venture, even as it grew, Boeing it never fully lost that ethos. It was a family firm with technological excellence in its DNA – there, the engineers were king. The MD culture, however, was one of corporate bean-counters with shareholder value rather than engineering excellence being the foremost core-value. So, not surprisingly, within a couple of years, the junior partner had assumed control. This led to cultural changes within Boeing which are the likely root cause of its current technical problems