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Inside the Effort to Fix the Troubled Boeing 737 MAX

An exclusive look inside a Boeing flight simulator with two American Airlines pilots trying to help correct the software flaw believed to be behind two crashes

After takeoff, the Boeing 737 suddenly warns pilots that the plane is about to lose lift and stall, an erroneous signal from a bad sensor. The control column shakes, loudly. Pilot Roddy Guthrie diagnoses the problem—and then the plane’s nose suddenly pitches down, on its own. Emergency No. 2.

He pulls back on the control column to keep climbing and gets the airplane back to the proper orientation, nose up. But it happens again, with more force. And then a third time, with even more force, so that he’s looking almost straight down at the ground—the most terrifying sight for any pilot.

The episode, a repeat of the system failure suspected in two Boeing 737 MAX crashes, takes place in a Boeing full-motion flight simulator Wednesday morning. A few minutes later, Capt. Guthrie and another pilot try again, this time with Boeing’s proposed software fixes installed—software that’s critical to Boeing, airlines and travelers world-wide.

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Boeing’s MAX Grounding Lifts Firms That Rent Out Airplanes

During busy summer season, carriers seek to fill holes created by grounded aircraft

The global grounding of Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX jetliners has upended air travel, but one little-noticed corner of the aviation industry is benefiting from the problems: companies that rent out planes and staff.

Regulators in March stopped MAX planes from flying because of safety concerns following two fatal crashes in less than six months. Almost overnight, airlines parked more than 370 planes. Boeing was forced to stop delivering the MAX, which it had been producing at a rate of around 50 each month.

Airlines that had ordered the MAX, the newest version of the 737, suddenly faced the busy summer travel season with hundreds fewer planes available than they had expected to operate.

In other industries, customers might turn to a competing supplier. But tapping Boeing’s European rival Airbus SE wasn’t an option. Even if airlines were able to manage all the pilot training and logistical complexities of switching between jetliner brands—a feat few carriers can handle—Airbus couldn’t supply the planes. Its production lines are booked for several years.

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History’s Precedents for the 737 MAX

Boeing isn’t the first manufacturer to miss critical problems when certifying a new aircraft.

Frenzied headlines aside, the recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes fit a long pattern in the imperfect history of aircraft-certification programs, which sometimes miss fatal flaws.

Start with the de Havilland Comet, made in Britain. While the Boeing 707 popularized jet travel, the Comet was the world’s first commercial jetliner, entering service in 1952.

Less than two years later, a Comet broke apart 20 minutes after taking off from Rome and plunged into the Mediterranean for undetermined reasons. The fleet was grounded temporarily, but a few months later a second Comet broke up over the sea. This time the fleet was grounded permanently, and the aircraft was extensively redesigned to combat a problem then little understood: metal fatigue.

The aircraft-certification program had failed to detect that. It hadn’t known what to look for.

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GM and Boeing Show How Safety Miscues Happen

Each design choice may be imperfect, but it takes a piling up of circumstances to create a fatal defect.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s comments at the company’s annual meeting last month left many baffled. Why not acknowledge that Boeing had screwed up with its now-notorious MCAS software that contributed to two fatal crashes of its new 737 MAX jets? His performance left a different taste in the mouths of specialists: The lawyers are in charge now.

An accepted duty of management nowadays is to facilitate eventual liability settlements by not using words that acknowledge faulty decisions. In a better world it would be otherwise, but word-parsing is what lawyers advise. CEOs and boards can themselves be sued by shareholders if they put a foot wrong or even if they don’t.

Less deservedly, Mr. Muilenburg was also derided for his insisting that a “chain of events,” and not a specific defect, was behind the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines disasters. He was right in a way that bears reflection given the many complex systems and imperfect machines we rely on.

Excerpt from WSJ

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