When Will The B737 Max Fly Again?

The Boeing 737 Max hit the headlines again this week with news of further setbacks ahead of it’s anticipated return to the skies. As the fastest selling aircraft that Aviation giant Boeing had ever made, the 737 Max should have been cause for celebration. Following two fatal crashes, however, the Max was grounded indefinitely in March 2019. In both accidents – the first in October 2018 and the second in March of the following year – the planes crashed following an irretrievable nose dive, resulting in the deaths 346 passengers. Within eight days, the 387 operational Max aeroplanes were grounded by regulators around the world. After such tragic loss of life, and the subsequent industry scandal, what fate lies in store for the B373 Max?

The B737 Max Back Story

The 737 was first announced in 2011, promising to be the next great work-horse of the passenger Aviation industry. It boasted greater fuel efficiency, lower running costs, longer range, and similar enough handling to previous models that pilots would easily be able to transition to this exciting new model of aircraft. Boeing had planned to follow their previous B737 NG with a brand new aeroplane, but decided to remodel the NG in an effort to keep up with stiff competition from the 737’s freshly launched rival, the Airbus 320neo.

The new engines for the Max series were larger, and mounted differently to those of the previous NG iteration. Because Boeing wanted the aeroplanes to handle similarly to other 737s, the Max generation were designed with an automated system called the Manoeuvring Control Augmentation System (MCAS), that would compensate by stabilizing the plane. After more than a year of test flights, the FAA granted the B737 Max certification and the first passenger flight took to the skies in May of 2017. After one year of service, over 6.5 million passengers had enjoyed safe journeys within a 737 Max. However, in the coming October, disaster was to strike.

On October 29, a Lion Air flight took off from Jakarta, Indonesia. Pilots quickly reported flight control issues, and only twelve minutes into the flight, the plane crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board. The B737 Max continued to fly, around the world, and by March of 2019 Boeing had delivered 386 Max planes, with more than 5,000 orders from airlines. On March 10, an Ethiopian Airlines flight took off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, only to crash six minutes later. All 157 passengers were killed. MCAS was identified as the cause of both crashes, and within eight days of this second tragedy, all B373 Max aeroplanes were grounded indefinitely.

The Latest Set Backs

As of November 2019, Boeing had lost over $10 billion in revenue and compensation expenses to airlines and bereaved families, and continues to face several lawsuits. Boeing abruptly fired CEO Dennis Muilenburg late last month following his perceived mishandling of the Aviation crisis. This month David L. Calhoun, previously Boeing’s chairman, has taken over the CEO role, reportedly having been promised $7 million if he could get the Max recertified. Beyond the decision to rewrite not only the software for the MCAS flight control system, but the entire flight control software, inspectors have raised concerns about two bundles of essential wiring that may be close enough together to cause a short circuit, which could potentially lead to a crash. Boeing stated that if a repair was deemed necessary, the fix would be relatively easy to make.

Boeing have also discovered a flaw in manufacturing that may leave the 737 vulnerable to lightning strike. The coating that insulates an upper panel of the aeroplane was inadvertently ground down during assembly, as workers sought an optimum fit. This removed vital protection for the fuel tank and fuel lines from lightning, however the FFA is preparing a directive to enforce resolution of the issue on all 737s already distributed. Regulators also expressed concern over a vulnerability in one of the engine’s rotors, which could cause it to shatter. The risk has been deemed minimal, and only increased inspection requirements are considered an appropriate measure. Production of the B737 max had continued throughout 2019, but has been paused this month as issues continue to be addressed.

What Obstacles Still Await?

Work still remains to be done on the new flight computer software, with communication issues identified between the Max’s two onboard computers during recent audits. This marks the second time regulators have asked Boeing for additional work to be carried out. Despite the setbacks, the plane could be cleared for a certification test flight as soon as this month. The possibility also stands that regulators could mandate flight simulator training, which was not previously considered necessary for pilots with experience of other 737 models. Undoubtedly, the FFA will be keen to elevate it’s own reputation after signing off on this ill fated aeroplane. Several airlines have announced that they anticipate having the B737 Max back on their schedules by June, although following setback after setback, it seems appropriate to take this date tentatively. How quickly the Boeing 737 Max will be able to regain the trust of the aviation industry’s travelling customers remains to be seen.

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