Tests for the recertification of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 are starting around the world. How are the tests going, and is the aircraft on track to return anytime soon? This is a look into the failed planes progress in its attempt to comeback.
The MAX has been grounded in every country in the world since March 2019. The groundings came as a result of two crashes that killed a total of 346 people- everyone on both flights. The first crash was Lion Air Flight 610, when a flight from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta to Depati Amir Airport in Pangkal Pinang crashed around 13 minutes after take-off, killing all 189 people onboard.
The cause? An issue with the aircrafts Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. This is a software that "moves the stabilizer in a wind-up turn," and automatically adjusts the horizontal stabilizer to push the nose down when the aircraft is operating in manual flight, with flaps up, at an elevated angle of attack, which "is the angle between a reference line on a body and the vector representing the relative motion between the body and the fluid through which it is moving," so the pilot will not inadvertently pull the airplane up too steeply, potentially causing a stall, which can occur when the aircraft is flying too slow. The steeper the pitch, the more speed a plane loses, and the higher the chance of a stall. Although a large majority say so, Boeing claims the MCAS is not an anti-stall system. In the MAX 8, the MCAS activated during normal flight when it was not needed, taking over and causing the aircraft's nose to pitch down and nose dive. The pilots would not be able to recover, and there is a debate of whether that's due to lack of training or the MCAS.
The second crash, the one that ultimately provoked the groundings, was on March 10, 2019, when an Ethiopian Airlines flight operating as ET302 crashed at 8:44 am, just 6 minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on its way to Nairobi, Kenya. All 157 passengers and crew died. This incident occured less than six months after the first, and the cause was found to be the same as the first.
The aviation world and world governments responded to these events almost immediately. Less than a week after ET302, the 737 MAX 8 was grounded worldwide and prohibited from every country's airspace. Airlines began cancelling orders, and Boeing stopped production of the aircraft. Investigations were launched, and the future for Boeing seemed uncertain. The 777x, whose release has been pushed back to 2021 at the earliest, was also in production, and getting ready for its first flight. Talks of airlines switching to Airbus came about, and it seemed as if Airbus would overtake Boeing and become the world's leading aircraft manufacturer.
Boeing faced legal issues with the U.S. government as well as lawsuits. They also lost revenue due to less orders and production of the plane.
The 737 MAX 8 was predicted to return on September 4, but due to COVID and other issues and delays, that did not happen.
Now test flights are underway for the aircraft to be recertified and be deemed airworthy once again. Meetings are being held in London with civil aviation authorities and airline flight crews from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and the E.U. to discuss and review Boeing's proposed training plan for MAX flight crews.
On Friday, Europe's flight safety authority said that the first flight tests have been completed. The European Aviation Safety Agency conducted these dests in European Aviation Safety Agency in Vancouver due to COVID-19 restrictions. "As the next step in its evaluation of the aircraft for return to service, EASA is now analyzing the data and other information gathered during the flights," the agency said about the aircraft's return. The data will be given to the EASA's joint operations evaluation board, which is scheduled to start an assesment of the aircraft and test flights next week in London, so while there is no confirmation that the flights were a success, this is a good indicator that things went well.
The EASA has been working with the FAA and Boeing "to return the Boeing 737 Max aircraft to service as soon as possible, but only once we are convinced it is safe." The FAA began its own recertification flight testing in June. FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson said "that the 737 Max's entire flight control system- not just the software- has come under scrutiny. The overhaul had been complicated by the need to get the changes to work in conjunction with the plane's redundancies and with other interdependent systems" when asked why the recertification process was taking so long. Once all issues are solved, all 400 grounded aircraft must be properly confirmed good to go.
There is no question about it: the MAX will fly again. Whether or not it will be back anytime soon is unknown, but the answer to that should become clear in the coming days and weeks. But once the aircraft is recertified and airworthy again, there are a few more issues. "Returning the MAX safely to service is our number one priority, and we are confident that will happen," said Boeing.
Some airlines have cancelled orders or ordered different aircraft. Some switched to Airbus. And some may not feel comfortable purchasing or using the aircraft. In fact, over 300 orders have been cancelled. With issues around the MAX 8, 777X, and Dreamliner, some airlines may begin to shy away from Boeing and start using more Airbus aircraft. There may also be less, or no, need for the aircraft because there is less travel demand, as well as the fact that airlines may have already replaced it with either another Boeing type aircraft or the Airbus equivalent, the a320 family. There is, however, confidence that the plane will stick around and still have a major presence, as it was a best seller before it was grounded.
Another issue the aircraft will face is the customer. Many travelers are wary of the aircraft, skeptical after hearing all the negative things about it and its maker on the news. People may switch flights when they find out they will be on the MAX, or just not fly at all. While this may eventually die down when the plane regains a good reputation, airlines cannot wait that long. They're already losing money, paying for storage and maintenance of the aircraft, as well as everything COVID has thrown their way. While there are some flyers who feel safe on the MAX and trust Boeing and the aviation angencies from around the world, many know what they do from the media, and understanbly will be hesitant to board.
A third issue is that Boeing has other problems, problems that may cause hesitation. The release of the 777X was, as mentioned earlier, pushed back at least a year due to engine and other mechanical issues. A bigger problem has come more recently: in August, Boeing ordered that eight recently produced 787-10s be immediately taken out of service due to two "distinct manufacturing issues." The 78X is produced at Boeing's facitility in Charleston, South Carolina, and the FAA says that U.S. regulators are invesigating lapses in quality control.
"The two issues appear to be 'nonconforming' rear fuselage sections, as well as how the company produces shims for the 787 at Charleston." Shims are thin pieces of material that used to fill in small gaps or spaces. Reports indicate that the issues only pertain to aircraft built in Charleston in 2019, but Boeing is assessing the entire 787 fleet. They have notified and asked all the carriers with the faulty aircraft to ground them. A full investigation is being launched, and you can read more the situation here.
It has been more than a year since the 737 MAX 8 was grounded, and although there were many trials and errors to get it back in the air, great progress has been made and it appears the return is finally near. While testing may take a while, and the process of getting all the planes ready and flying will be slow, there is great hope that this is the home stretch and the MAX 8 will be in the air and flying at full capacity once again.
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