In designing the 737 MAX, Boeing altered the plane’s automatic response in the event of a faulty angle-of-attack sensor, failed to include the change in the airplane’s operating manual, and then promptly blamed foreign pilots when two separate crashes involving the model took 347 lives. At ProPublica, Alec MacGillis follows the Stumo family — the first family in America to sue Boeing in the wake of the 737 MAX disasters — as they try to seek justice for their daughter Samya, who was killed when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed into the earth at a speed of 575 miles per hour.
I talked with Gregory Travis, a software engineer and pilot who has written extensively about the crashes. “Every past crash that I can think of was an accident, in that there was something that wasn’t really reasonably foreseeable,” Travis told me. “This was entirely diﬀerent, and I don’t think anyone understands that. This was a collision of deregulation and Wall Street, and the tragic thing is that it was tragic. It was inevitable.”
Taken together, the reports suggested that Boeing had put all the risk on the pilot, who would be expected to know what to do within seconds if a system he didn’t know existed set oﬀ a welter of cockpit alerts and forced the plane downward. “An airplane shouldn’t put itself in a position where the pilots have to act heroically to save the plane,” the veteran U.S. commercial airline pilot told me. “Pilots shouldn’t have to be superhuman. Planes are built to be ﬂown by normal people.” Gregory Travis, the pilot and software engineer, said: “MCAS sealed their fate. Everything that comes after that is noise.”
Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who, in 2009, saved a plane by crash-landing it in the Hudson River, testiﬁed at a House hearing in June. “Boeing has said that they did not categorize a failure of MCAS as more critical because they assumed that pilot action would be the safeguard,” he said. This was a mistake. “I can tell you ﬁrst hand that the startle factor is real and it’s huge — it absolutely interferes with one’s ability to quickly analyze the crisis and take eﬀective action.” He said that he, too, had struggled in a 737 MAX simulator after the crashes. “Even knowing what was going to happen, I could see how crews could have run out of time before they could have solved the problems,” he said. MCAS, he concluded, “was fatally ﬂawed and should never have been approved.”
The Indonesian government’s ﬁnal report on the Lion Air crash cited, among other factors, Boeing’s failure to mention MCAS in the 737 MAX manual — the cockpit recorder captured the sound of the pilots riﬄing through pages in vain.