Journalist’s ‘black box’ shows how Boeing veered off course

“Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing” by Peter Robison, 332 pages, Penguin Business, Maruzen price: ¥5,271

Every major plane crash is followed by a search for the black boxes, devices that record data such as speed, altitude and the pilots’ spoken words, which may shed light on the causes of the disaster. “Flying Blind,” a book by Bloomberg News investigative reporter Peter Robison, is itself a black box — illuminating the factors behind the deadly crashes of Boeing 737-MAX airliners that killed a total of 346 people.

In addition to technical causes, Robison’s book reveals a non-aeronautical factor behind those horrific events: the perverse emphasis on short-term shareholder gains by top executives of Boeing Co.

Robison points to the 1997 merger of Boeing and former rival McDonnell Douglas as an unhealthy turning point in the planemaker’s corporate culture. At one point, former McDonnell Douglas CEO Harry Stonecipher, who was Boeing’s CEO in 2003-05, boasts, “I changed the culture at Boeing … so that it’s run like a business rather than a great engineering firm.”

That meant cutting costs, which often meant cutting corners. Robison includes too many examples for one book review, among them efforts to avoid the expense of additional pilot training during the development of the ill-fated 737-MAX.

The MAX was unveiled in 2011 as the latest in a long series of redesigns of the 737, which debuted in 1967. The new plane had larger engines placed further forward, which put it at risk of stalling if its nose got too high under certain conditions. If software called MCAS — also newly installed in the MAX — detected those conditions, it would automatically force the plane’s nose down.

Incredibly, pilots were unaware of this.

What’s more, Robison writes, “Only a few people at the FAA [the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] had even heard of it.”

Had FAA regulators been aware, they might have required pilots of the older 737 models to undergo extra training to fly the MAX. But this would have clashed with Boeing being “run like a business,” with its focus on short-term gains.

Southwest Airlines, for example, had ordered 246 of the planes by 2019, and “Boeing had promised Southwest [a discount of] $1 million per plane if simulator training was required.”

Furthermore, “Boeing had chosen an unproven supplier to build the simulator for the MAX, the lowest bidder, and those simulators likely weren’t going to be ready in time for the MAX’s entry into service.”

Then, on a 2018 flight in Indonesia, bad sensor data caused the MCAS software to misfire, forcing the plane’s nose down. Caught by surprise, the pilots raised the nose, only for the software force it back down again. In the battle for control of the plane, human beings lost and 189 people died.

Months later, essentially the same thing happened in Ethiopia, this time taking the lives of 157 people.

“Flying Blind” is filled with shocking quotes from Boeing insiders who knew something was wrong. A former U.S. Navy pilot working at the company told a factory manager that he had seen the military shut operations down over lesser safety concerns than those being raised by workers at the factory.

The manager’s reply? “The military isn’t a profit-making organization.”

And profits were indeed made, at least for some: “Boeing’s leaders poured more than $30 billion of cash into stock buybacks during the MAX’s development, enriching shareholders and ultimately themselves. [Dennis] Muilenburg made more than $100 million as CEO [in 2015-19], and he left with an additional $60 million golden parachute.”

And that’s how to run a company like a business, rather than a great engineering firm.