When Accountants Design Aircraft
Milton Friedman probably never wrote about airline safety. But it’s a good bet that he’d conceive of it like so: Keep the dead hand of the state off of the genius of technological innovation and the private commercial operation of air transport. If an aircraft manufacturer or airline proves negligent and enough bodies pile up, the market will punish those companies. After all, the primary duty of the corporation is to its shareholders, which should, through the magic of emergent order and free markets, ensure the safety of the flying public.
Fortunately, that’s not how advanced societies function.
The dreaded “dead hand” is the reason why, despite the vigorous protestations of the chemical and petroleum industries, our children are not poisoned with atmospheric lead, and it’s why, despite the screams of the apparel industry, you don’t have to worry about your granddaughter’s jammies catching fire.
And it’s also one of the many reasons why, until three years ago, catastrophic airliner crashes became ever rarer.
Peter Robison narrates in Flying Blind how, on October 28, 2018, a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max took off from Bali for Jakarta, and almost immediately its pilots had trouble maintaining the jet’s pitch – nose up versus nose down – axis. Screams ricocheted through the cabin as the plane careened up and down. An off-duty senior pilot came to the cockpit and noticed something that the captain and first officer, fighting their control yokes, had missed: The trim wheel on the console between them, an anachronism more likely to be found in an old Cessna than a modern airliner, was turning on its own. This observation drove him to consult the checklist for the stabilizer – the small aft wing that controls pitch – which told him to shut off its motor.
After landing, the pilots noted the defect, but Boeing had not informed either flight crews or maintenance personnel about the problem’s culprit – the aircraft’s “maneuvering characteristics augmentation system” (MCAS), which had been activated by an improperly installed angle-of-attack device – an external sensor that monitor show much of a bite the wing’s bottom takes out of the airflow to generate lift at low airspeeds. Consequently, it was not replaced. A few hours later, a new crew powered the aircraft off the Jakarta runway, and the problem recurred. This time, its crew and passengers were not so lucky; the pilots struggled with the control yoke for 13 minutes before the plane plunged into the Java Sea.
Initially, Boeing blamed the crash on poor pilot training by Lion, an airline with a spotty record. But four months later a nearly identical accident befell an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa. Ethiopian had an excellent safety record, and airlines around the world immediately grounded the plane.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg assured Donald Trump of the aircraft’s safety, and the FAA did not ground the airliner for another three days, until it became obvious that the crashes were due to the design flaws inherent in the shotgun marriage between a half-century old aircraft design and the large, fuel-efficient turbofan engines that power today’s airliners. In the past, the FAA had led the world in the speed and determination with which it handled equipment and training issues; thanks to the country’s increasing allergy to regulation, it now rode in the caboose.
Robison’s book tells the sad 737 Max story in compellingly comprehensive fashion, starting with the origins of the commercial airline industry at both Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, which culminated in the 1997 merger of the two companies.
Initially, the two firms could not have been more different. For decades after William Boeing built his first tiny amphibious aircraft, his company spared no expense in the interest of engineering rigor and safety. In 1959 a test flight version of the 707 crashed because its pilots had exceeded the prescribed bank angle. The project’s director, Alvin “Tex” Johnston, who could simply have ordered a fix for the flight manual, instead grounded the plane for months and spent millions the company didn’t have to accommodate a redesign of the tail. And when in 1985 a hard landing of a Japan Airlines 747 damaged its tail and an improper repair cost 520 lives – the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history – the company immediately came clean and settled with the victims’ families.
McDonnell Douglas, on the other hand, had a history of paying more attention to its bottom line than it did to aircraft design and safety. Equipment modifications were expensive and interfered with its duty to its shareholders, a focus that climaxed in the production of the DC-10, one of the most dangerous airliners ever fielded by a Western manufacturer.
The plane featured a pair of synergistically deadly design flaws. The first was a rear fuselage hatch that opened out, so as to allow the loading of more cargo. You may have noticed that the passenger door on every airliner you board opens in, sealing it off under thousands of pounds of pressure as the plane ascends into thinner air (and why you don’t have to worry about a crazed passenger opening the door in flight). The second flaw was the bunching together of all three hydraulic lines near the tail, which negated their redundancy value. When the rear hatch blew open at altitude or the rear engine suffered an uncontained failure, all three lines ruptured, rendering the aircraft almost completely uncontrollable.
The company followed the ill-fated DC-10 with the MD-11, whose anemic range and poor fuel economy, along with the cancellation of the A-12 attack aircraft project, sealed the company’s fate, which forced the 1997 merger with Boeing. Unfortunately, McDonnell Douglas’s dysfunctional culture infected the new company; when CEO Phil Condit resigned after discussing a job for an Air Force procurement officer who evaluated Boeing contracts, former McDonnell CEO Harry Stonecipher took over, which accelerated the company’s bottom line focus. (As a result of the procurement scandal, the Air Force employee, Darleen Druyun, served jail time. Boeing CEOs, on the other hand, were inclined to zipper problems; Condit married four times, and both Muilenberg and Stonecipher resigned in “fraternization” scandals.)
Under Stonecipher, Boeing saved money by dispersing aircraft design and manufacture around the country; no longer, for example, could engineers easily talk to test pilots. The design and manufacture of its 787 Dreamliner also suffered from the green eyeshade mentality when designers failed to address the obvious fire hazard in the 787’s battery system, which resulted in a lengthy grounding. Perhaps most serious of all, the company outsourced simulator training, the cornerstone of aviation safety.
In the early 2010s, Boeing needed a new aircraft to compete with the innovative Airbus 320neo. Rather than, as it had in the past, meeting innovation with innovation, however costly, the company decided, for the sake of its bottom line, to simply bolt the larger new turbofans onto the now ancient 737 airframe design. This in turn resulted in a tendency for the plane to pitch up and stall when the flaps were retracted after takeoff; Boeing engineers responded by adding in the MCAS system, which was programmed to take pitch control out of the pilot’s hands in this event.
Amazingly, the system drew its data from just one angle-of-attack sensor, and when this temperamental gadget malfunctioned, it would swiftly thrust the aircraft’s nose down, giving pilots just seconds to save the plane. Even more remarkably, the company did not mention the MCAS in the text of the aircraft’s flight manual. (It got a single entry in the index.) And worse still, as a selling point, Boeing told its airline customers that pilots did not require expensive simulator training on the aircraft; instead, they got a few hours of training on an iPad before they applied takeoff power to its engines for the first time.
How did Boeing get away with this malfeasance? Per Milton Friedman and in the name of deregulation designed to augment innovation and efficiency, the FAA largely delegated its responsibilities to company employees; organizational charts showed FAA officials serving under Boeing executives; one company senior pilot described FAA inspectors at safety meetings as “dogs watching television.”
Flying Blind is beautifully written and comprehensive, covering subjects as diverse as early aviation history, the rise of the shareholder-centric economic doctrine, and aeronautical engineering; one of its most heart-breaking sections deals with the abuse of grieving Indonesian family members, many of whom could not read the legal releases thrust in front of them by the army of attorneys hired by Boeing, Lion Air, and their insurers.
It’s hard to find even a small flaw with this book; pilots, perhaps, might have wanted a bit more aeronautical detail, but that would have made it less readable by non-pilots. Flying Blind is required reading for anyone who is concerned with the trade-off between public safety and private profit, or who wants a thoughtful bedtime read.
William J. Bernstein is a neurologist, co-founder of Efficient Frontier Advisors, an investment management firm, and has written several titles on finance and economic history. He has contributed to the peer-reviewed finance literature and has written for several national publications, including Money Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. He has produced several finance titles, and four volumes of history, The Birth of Plenty, A Splendid Exchange, Masters of the Word, and The Delusions of Crowds about, respectively, the economic growth inflection of the early 19th century, the history of world trade, the effects of access to technology on human relations and politics, and financial and religious mass manias. He was also the 2017 winner of the James R. Vertin Award from CFA Institute.