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The 737 Max, Compromised Design, the FAA, déjà vu & perhaps 346 is the Magic Number

Friday, 22 March 2019

There’s a lot of talk about the causes of the two 737 Max crashes – Lion Air on 29 October 2018 (157 deaths) and Ethiopian Airlines on 10 March 2019 (189 deaths). Two thoughts and one case of déjà vu, that handy French expression which means ‘we’ve been here before.’

▲ boarding a very elderly Kam Air 737-200 in Herat, Afghanistan in 2006. Note the skinny engines.

▲ Not so much space under the wings, but this is still an elderly aircraft, it’s a 30+ years old 737-300 with Our Airline in Nauru

Thought One: The 737 Max is less aerodynamically stable than its 737 NG (Next Generation) predecessors, like the 737-800. Essentially that’s because the 737 is too close to the ground to mount the engines in an ideal position. And that’s because the 737 first flew in 1967 with Pratt & Whitney JT-8 engines which had a fan diameter of 125cm. The CFM International LEAP-1B engines on the 737 Max have a fan diameter of 175cm. They simply do not fit so easily under the wing. Airbus don’t have the same problem because their competitive aircraft, the A320 series, didn’t take flight until 20 years later in 1987. So it had longer undercarriage and there’s more ground clearance under the wings. The A320 equivalent of the 737 Max is the A320neo for ‘new engine option.’ An Economist story in their 22 March 2019 issue sums the 737 Max problem up.

▲ A lot more room under the wings of an Airbus A320-200 with Air Asia in Bangkok

▲ Or an Airbus A320-200 with Jetstar Asia in Penang

Thought Two: It’s been suggested that the relationship between the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and Boeing is altogether too cosy and if the FAA had really been doing its job they would have required additional training for 737 Max pilots, particularly for the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) software which may be the cause of both crashes. Most aviation administrations went along with the Boeing and FAA belief that additional training was not required. One country that didn’t? Brazil.

And déjà vu? The DC-10 cargo door fiasco in the 1970s. The FAA and McDonnell Douglas knew the cargo door was dangerous, but they had a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ which avoided fixing it properly. There had been a cargo door failure in ground testing in July 1970. Then in June 1972 American Airlines flight 96 – the ‘Windsor Incident’ – miraculously avoided crashing but underlined the severe danger. As a result Dan Applegate – Director of Product Engineering at Convair which made the cargo door for McDonnell Douglas – reported that this was a disaster waiting to happen and it should absolutely be fixed. His report went out two weeks after the 1972 ‘Windsor Incident,’ but he was ignored although his name comes up in assorted ‘ethics and engineering’ stories.

He was absolutely correct because on 3 March 1974 a third DC-10 cargo door failed, this time it brought down Turkish Airlines flight 981 and 346 people died. Coincidentally precisely the same number who died on the two 737 Max crashes.

The 737 Max, Compromised Design, the FAA, déjà vu & perhaps 346 is the Magic Number

22 March 2019 | Transport

There’s a lot of talk about the causes of the two 737 Max crashes – Lion Air on 29 October 2018 (157 deaths) and Ethiopian Airlines on 10 March 2019 (189 deaths). Two thoughts and one case of déjà vu, that handy French expression which means ‘we’ve been here before.’ ...

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More Aerial Views

16 March 2019 | Transport

Flying from Dubai to Baku in Azerbaijan late last year a wonderful view of Iran’s snow-capped Mt Damavand popped up in my Fly Dubai 737 window. ▲ A few months later (ie just a week or two ago), flying from London to Singapore there it was again, this time I was fly...

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Empty Skies

15 March 2019 | Transport

Of course the skies are currently empty of Boeing 737 Max aircraft, but as a result of the recent India-Pakistan dispute, from Wednesday 27 February Pakistan closed its airspace to commercial flights. All those flights between Europe and South-East Asia – Bangkok, Kua...

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Courtyard Blackbirds, Backyard Dragon

13 March 2019 | Living

We often have birds nesting in our courtyard in Australia, it’s totally enclosed so they’re safe from cats and other intruders. The last few years it has been blackbirds, which are an exotic, ie not a native Australian bird. This year they produced not one, but three ...

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The Maldives – not for me thank you

4 March 2019 | Places

Flying between Europe and Australia I regularly gaze down at the Maldives and on one occasion, five years ago, I even blogged about identifying the islands I was flying over from 35,000 feet. So it was time I paid a Maldives visit although I don’t think I’m going t...

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Cruising on an 1891 Overman Victor

2 March 2019 | Transport

I had a ride in Melbourne with the Vintage Cycle Club on their annual city cruise. I was riding an 1891 Overman Victor sprung frame ‘safety bicycle’ borrowed from the Farren Collection’s wonderful assortment of old bicycles. ‘Safety’ means it has equal-sized wheels an...

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London – round the city

26 February 2019 | Places

▲ This year so far I’ve been in Melbourne, Sydney, New York City and London. Passing through Gloucester Rd tube station on the District Line this art work pops up beside the line – it’s lettie eggsyrub by Heather Phiillipson, part of the Art on the Underground project...

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New York City – tall, skinny skyscrapers

25 February 2019 | Places

A brief visit to New York and early one morning, walking from West to East Manhattan, to East 56th St, I spot this very tall, very skinny skyscraper. It’s 111 West 57th St, one of the current craze for very tall, very skinny skyscrapers sprouting up around the city. T...

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Sydney Walks

21 February 2019 | Places

Walking was the order of the day on a recent trip to Sydney with a bunch of friends. The city has great walks, harbour side and ocean side. ◄ We started with the 10km harbour side walk from Spit Bridge (Mosman on the North Shore) to Manly, which is on Sydney ...

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Erith Island & Bass Strait

13 January 2019 | Places

My island travels for Australia’s Islands, my book to be published by the National Library of Australia in October 2019 took me to a number of wonderful islands off the Western Australia coast in late 2018. I drove up to Dirk Hartog Island, took a lightplane out to th...

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