I picked up Flying Blind after Bryan Cantrill recently shared how this book on the Boeing 737 MAX fiasco was a cautionary tale on decay of culture/values in engineering companies. Boeing was one of the great American companies. Formed more than a century ago, their plane business took off in the golden era of air travel and they ended up being part of the duopoly with Airbus for domestic and international planes. Boeing had a great engineering-driven and safety-driven culture at their Seatlle HQ and slowly won the market with the 7x7 series of airplanes. The pinnacle of their excellence would be the 747 Jumbo Jet and 777.
A spate of DC-10 accidents sounded the death knell for their domestic rival McDonnell Douglas and in a fateful decision Boeing decided to buy MDD for its defense business. Over the next years, predatory managers from MDD and a slew of Jack Welch’s minions from GE took over the upper management of Boeing, using stack-and-yank to fire senior engineers, killing worker unions, moving manufacturing to other states, outsourcing/selling/killing every non-essential department and even moving the HQ to Chicago. Even more worryingly, Boeing lobbied and killed the independence of the FAA, in essence becoming self-regulating. When faced with new airplane designs from Airbus, the rotten Boeing management killed expensive clean-sheet designs and instead focused on creating derivatives of older 7xx designs resulting in the 787 Dreamliner and 737 MAX. An early indication of this decay were the battery fires which grounded Dreamliners, which engineers had shared with management during design.
But the epitome of bad decisions would be the 737 MAX. To compete with the modern Airbus A320neo, Boeing updated the dinosaur 737 with more powerful and efficient engines. The placement of these heavier engines surfaced a fundamental flaw - during ascent the nose could point up. Boeing decided to fix this in software - using MCAS to read the angle-of-attack (AoA) sensors and force the nose down. To avoid delaying FAA approval and avoid costly-simulator retraining for 737-certified pilots, Boeing hid MCAS from regulators, airlines and pilots. In what I’d call the dirtiest business trick ever, cockpit AoA indicators were made optional extras (taken out of the base model to make it price-competitive against A320neo) and this was what airlines in Asia and Africa unknowingly purchased.
What could result from this series of missteps but a loss of life? Pilots on a 2018 Lion Air flight with a faulty AoA sensor could not control the plane when MCAS repeatedly kept pushing the plane down to its demise. Boeing and FAA concluded this as pilot error, but already alarm bells will ringing among US pilots who were only now learning about MCAS. A few months later a 2019 Ethiopian Airlines flight killed all its fliers in a similar pattern and only then did FAA finally ground the planes. Since the people who died were those people (meaning not from US/Europe) the insurance folks, lawyers and Boeing would try terrible tricks on the families of the deceased to get away with the least compensation. And Boeing finally announced more fixes in software (that would take months) and FAA announced simulator training for MAX pilots (which they should have done in the first place).
The author Peter Robison is an investigative journalist for business papers and he covers the covers the history of Boeing, organizational changes, the accidents and the aftermath well. The book is way more detailed than it needs to be though on the management front - I did not see the point in knowing details of the hundreds of upper management folks in Boeing/MDD/GE. And the book is severely lacking in details of engineering culture, plane hardware/software design, MCAS or the sensors and photos and diagrams. Though the CEO would lose his job in the aftermath and people forgot about MAX with the COVID pandemic, the author notes that nothing really has changed in the Boeing culture even today. It is sad to read the slow demise of a good technology company and this book definitely makes me scared of ever flying in a 737 MAX.