In October 2018 Lion Air flight 610 departed the airport in Jakarta, Indonesia carrying 189 people. Twelve minutes later the airplane crashed into the sea, killing all aboard. Five months later a similar aircraft, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, crashed minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa. 159 people lost their lives.
Both airliners were 737 Max 8s, Boeing’s newest addition to its widely used 737 series, first flown in 1967. And both crashed because of a malfunctioning system their pilots had not been trained to recognize.
In “Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing,” Bloomberg reporter Peter Robison uncovers the missteps leading to these disasters. But Robison tells a broader story, the devolution of an iconic American industry from an enterprise that prided itself on engineering excellence to one whose emphasis was the bottom line and stockholder satisfaction.
The Boeing Company was founded in Seattle in 1916, initially involved in both the manufacture of aircraft as well as the operation of commercial airlines. Twenty years later federal regulations prohibited corporate entities from operating in both realms, and Boeing divested itself of its airline holdings.
Over the next six decades Boeing’s dedication to excellence in engineering became legendary. In 1997, however, Boeing merged with McDonnell-Douglas aircraft, and the following years saw a shift in emphasis from safety and innovation to profitability and efficiency.
Robison documents how the company was able to convince the Federal Aviation Administration to cede much of its responsibility for safety oversight back to Boeing itself.
The combination of cost-cutting and lack of outside evaluation of safety risks encouraged Boeing managers to take short cuts, some of which contributed to the development of a faulty system that was designed to prevent the Max from stalling if its airspeed was too low or its angle of attack too high. But Boeing did not include instructions in its flight manual for overriding the system in case of failure, and did not recommend that pilots undergo costly simulator training on the new system.
As a result the pilots of the two ill-fated aircraft did not have sufficient training or information to regain control of their planes and keep them from plunging to their doom.
Robison’s book is based on extensive interviews with present and former Boeing employees, discussions with others in the aircraft industry, and internal documents from Boeing made public during congressional hearings. Boeing itself and the FAA refused to provide comment for the book.