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Up up and away! 737 MAX takes to the skies again
John Quayle 559

Up up and away! 737 MAX takes to the skies again

As the 737 retires it looks like the 737 MAX will be the start of a new era in aviation

Wednesday 3rd December marked the beginning of the end of the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company’s 19-month nightmare that is the model 737 MAX. It began a series of passenger carrying flights with its hitherto grounded and recently re-certified fleet aimed at restoring public confidence in the type. Initially carrying staff, the press and representatives of the travel industry, the first flight was from Chicago to its massive engineering facility at Tulsa, Oklahoma (the largest in the world), where a presentation of the modifications incorporated into the aircraft was made.

 

The grounding of the Max for almost two years as a result of two fatal accidents is almost without precedent in the history of jet air travel. The losses of two de Havilland Comets, the world first jet airliner, in 1954, eventually attributed to a design flaw which led to metal fatigue and subsequent explosive decompression, caused the permanent groundings of the Comet Series 1. A completely redesigned version, the Comet Series 4, did not enter airline service until September 1958 on the very eve (October 1958) of Boeing’s 707 entering service, and just a year before Douglas’s DC-8. Put simply, the American jets were better products. They were bigger, they were faster, and they could fly a lot further. Comet 4 sales were poor. Sales of the 707 & DC-8 literally ‘took off’, and made their respective manufacturers lots of money over their many successful years of production. But that is not really a valid analogy with Boeing’s recent plight. The Comet was a ground breaking project the likes of which the rest of the world, at that time, could come nowhere near rivalling. Regrettably, Britain was to pay a high price for its pioneering.

 

In 1979 an American Airlines DC-10, a type that had been in service for 8-years, crashed on take-off from Chicago when its number 1 engine parted company with the aeroplane, causing damage to the hydraulic systems and a departure from controlled flight which the crew were unable to contain. 271 people died. The type was immediately grounded. The cause of the accident was quickly established and rectified. Airlines, not just American, were failing to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when changing the wing mounted engines, in order to save time/money. Ironically, the engine change that led to the loss of this DC-10, was carried out at American’s Tulsa engineering base, destination of this week’s MAX flight! The DC-10 went on to have a long and successful career, and, despite other DC-10 hull losses, there was no widespread resistance to traveling on the type, perhaps because the crash did not arise from a design flaw, but by incorrect procedures being used by the operators. As stated above, the cause of the crash was quickly identified and corrected, and the grounding lasted only 37-days. So again, direct analogy with the MAX is absent.

 

The 99-page Airworthiness Directive (AD) was issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on 18th November, setting down what changes must be made to the 72 MAX aircraft already delivered to US carriers (387 worldwide), 450 completed aircraft produced since grounding, and of course future builds. These turn upon software changes concerning the errant Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), restricting the severity of its inputs, and making it easier for the crew to override when it runs amuck. Two sources of data will now be fed to MCAS; Two Angle of Attack Indicators (AOAs) will replace the previous single AOA. If one is damaged or inoperative (factors in both of the MAX accidents), MCAS will disengage whenever it receives AOA signals that differ by 5.5-degrees or greater, triggering a red ‘AOA DISAGREE’ alert to the crew’s primary flight displays. Most importantly, crews will receive specific training in how to recover from an MCAS runaway, and detail of the system will appear in their manuals and non-normal checklists. Prior to the grounding Boeing did not even declare the very existence of MCAS to pilots as it was not considered a ‘need to know’ item! Finally, a physical re-route of the wiring to the horizontal stabiliser is required.

 

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA - basically the EU’s FAA) issued their equivalent AD on 24th November. It is a straight copy of the FAA document, with two additional requirements. Pilots must be able to cancel the ‘stick shaker’ (stall warning device which literally shakes the pilots’ control columns just before the aerodynamic stall – very difficult to ignore!!) after its initial activation. This is to avoid potential distraction. And, the autopilot must not be used when performing certain types of complex GPS based instrument approaches.

 

American Airlines plan to commence revenue MAX services on 29th December. Customers will be told a MAX is operating their flight, and given the opportunity to switch to another type without further charge. EASA regulated airlines will do the same early in the new year. Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary was reported by the Independent last December as saying that his airline will not inform passengers that a MAX is operating their service, nor will they allow any refunds if a passenger refuses to board. However, in a recent Guardian his position seems to be softening and he stated that if a passenger wants to switch to a service operated by the company’s older 737-800s, then “no problem”.

 

And whilst on the subject of Ryanair, they have this past week just announced an order for a further 75 MAX-8 jets, valued at £6.7bn, to add to the 210 already ordered. You have to admire their eye for a bargain!

 

So, all that remains now is to see how the public react to flying on the MAX? Would I be happy to fly on one? Would I be happy to actually fly it was I still working? And would I be comfortable to wave the wife and kids off knowing they were travelling on a MAX? As I have said before, the answer to all three questions is an unhesitant and emphatic “yes”. It’s not often that I agree with Michael O’Leary, but I agree with him completely when he sums the situation up perfectly in saying that the MAX is now the “… most scrutinized and audited aircraft in history”.

 

Capt J W H Quayle

 

Editor’s note

It is unfortunate in some respects that the re-launch of this aircraft comes at a time why aviation is suffering its worst recession. Only time will tell if aviation will get back to its former self within a realistic time frame.

 

Adrian Leopard 06-12-20

Photo Courtesy Boeing

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