Feb 23, 2021 - Economy

Plane's safe landing recalls Boeing's golden days

A Boeing 777 with an engine on fire

Photo: Chad Schnell via AP

Saturday's scene of a burning jet landing safely back at the airport harkens back to the day when Boeing was an engineer-driven company known as the gold standard for aviation safety.

Why it matters: That reputation took a major blow after two crashes involving the 737 MAX. Boeing has since spent billions, and the FAA has sought to overcome its own reputational hit, reengineering and re-certifying the MAX in pursuit of the same long-term safety record as its earlier airliners.

The big picture: The 737 MAX has the same general design and safety redundancy as the Boeing 777 that suffered a blown engine on Saturday — two pilots, two engines, similar basic rudder and operating systems.

  • What's different is the 777 was an entirely new airplane, designed from a clean sheet of paper, while the MAX was the latest — and, likely, final — iteration of the workhorse 737.
  • Since the plane first flew in 1967, Boeing has stretched and reengineered it until the company had to decide whether to return to the drawing board for a new airplane, or make one more tweak to an old one.
  • Concerned American Airlines and other U.S. carriers were about to buy an emerging Airbus competitor, Boeing forged ahead in 2011 with the MAX — and pushed regulators to approve it without requiring a new pilot certification or additional simulator training.
  • Critics say economics pushed engineering to its limits.

Those decisions proved catastrophic in 2018 and 2019, when 737 MAXs operated by Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines plunged from the sky shortly after takeoff.

  • Pilots were surprised to learn Boeing had installed new anti-stall software on the planes — MCAS — to compensate for potential imbalances created after their oversized engines were pushed forward on the wing to gain necessary ground clearance.
  • The MCAS system effectively overrode pilot movements on the control stick, pushing the planes' nose down even as the captain or first officer tried to pull up.
  • Subsequent investigations raised questions about the FAA's decision to let Boeing effectively self-certify its planes, and avoid additional pilot training that may have prevented the two crashes.
  • The FAA began to rely on aerospace companies to perform self-certification as the agency's workforce was stretched among numerous manufacturers.

The bottom line: The old Boeing was evident on Saturday, when the United Airlines 777 destined for Hawaii was able to return safely to Denver despite its damage.

  • Planes with two engines are designed to fly safely with just one operating.
  • The rudders that run up their tails are sized so the plane can fly straight even when it's being powered on just one side.
  • And hydraulic and electrical systems are backed up and spaced to avoid losing total control if spraying debris disables any individual control.
  • The two pilots also didn't flinch, successfully following their training.

Editor's note: Glen Johnson formerly served as the AP's national transportation writer. He attended a design and safety class at Boeing in 1998 that focused on the 777.

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