Going to the Moon the Second Time

It’s happy hour and my inhibitions are down, so I’ll confess that I am a major National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report junkie. Sadly, I’ve read almost all of the major incident reports going back for a stretch of time I’m embarrassed to name. So, I know that I shouldn’t speculate about the two 737 MAX incidents, but tequila tells me differently.

First, as a matter of historical interest, this isn’t the first time 737s have fallen out of the sky. In the early 90’s, an issue with the rudder actuator in 737s caused a couple of fatal accidents. If the first of these (in Colorado Springs) had happened today, it would have killed at least 100 people. However, back in the days before computer systems that sell every seat, 25 people were killed. Read that Wikipedia article I linked to see some excellent engineering in practice, as the NTSB was able to weave together a similar incident in a 747 to help solve the mystery of 737s falling out of the sky.

Second, the FAA has always been an industry lackey. If you read through NTSB reports, you’ll find that a remarkable number of their recommendations are rejected by the FAA. A good example is fire suppression. The NTSB had consistently recommended the use of fire-resistant materials in planes, and also the use of materials that don’t turn into poisonous gas if they burn. It took Air Canada 797 in 1983, where a fire in the lavatory ended up killing 23 persons despite some Sullenberger-level flying from pilot Donald Cameron, to push the FAA to finally beef up their recommendations for fire retardant materials and other measures to combat fire in an airplane. Everyone flying today owes a debt of gratitude to those poor people who died the miserable deaths that finally changed aviation. Since commercial aviation accidents are rare, it’s always easy for the FAA (with industry prodding) to say that the accident was an “isolated incident” or “pilot error” or whatever bullshit excuse they want to use.

Third, Boeing ain’t what they used to be. Their decision to farm out the manufacturing of the 787 to every corner of the Earth caused delays and if it weren’t the batteries that caused the grounding of that plane, it would probably be something else. With the 737 MAX, Boeing’s issue was that they wanted to push out another new variant of their popular narrow body plane without re-training pilots. Since the engines on the new variant were so large that they have issues with the 1960s era design of the 737, Boeing used a software hack (MCAS) to address a possible issue when the 737-trained pilots flew the 737 MAX by hand, and they somehow lubed up the FAA to accept that an airplane with a much different instrument layout didn’t need new training. But don’t trust me, listen to what a pilot said:

I think it is unconscionable that a manufacturer, the FAA, and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models. The fact that this airplane requires such jury rigging to fly is a red flag. Now we know the systems employed are error prone–even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place, and failure modes.

MCAS plus an equipment failure is probably what caused the crash in Indonesia, and perhaps what happened in Ethiopia. The good news is that, unlike a rudder actuator or metal fatigue. this problem can be fixed with a combination of software upgrades and pilot training.

Fourth, Trump’s government shut down probably contributed to this problem. Boeing was working on a software fix to MCAS that was held up when the FAA shut down slowed negotiations.

Finally, if you’re interested in more on this, look at James Fallows’ posts.

The post title is a reference to the fact that human beings take for granted that once a engineering challenge is solved, it should be trivially easy to solve it the second time, so it should take a fraction of the time and money to fix. The 737 MAX is a great example of why this isn’t true: Boeing engineers, under massive constraint, built a new plane and called it a 737. If their engineers had started with a blank slate, Boeing management would have been a lot more cautious about rolling it out. Instead, here we are.

36 replies
  1. 1
    Brachiator says:

    First, as a matter of historical interest, this isn’t the first time 737s have fallen out of the sky.

    Are there differences between a 737 and a 737 Max?

  2. 2
    [Individual 1] mistermix says:

    @Brachiator: Yes, 737 MAX is a new variant with larger engines, software to correct for those engines, and (apparently) a different set of cockpit instruments.

  3. 3

    Everyone flying today owes a debt of gratitude to those poor people who died the miserable deaths that finally changed aviation.

    Safety rules are always written in blood.

  4. 4

    Far too many fucking “regulatory” agencies are nothing but shills for the industries they’re supposedly overseeing. This has always been a problem, but it’s turbocharged under Tяump.

  5. 5
    Brachiator says:

    @[Individual 1] mistermix: I deleted an article I saw earlier that suggested that Boeing was hot to fight off competition from Airbus when they decided on the 737 MAX. Damn I wish I could find that article again.

  6. 6
    Mike J says:

    The most galling bit to me: there are two angle of attack detectors on board. In the latest crash, there was a 20% difference before they left the ground. The MAX has a warning light in case of a mismatch, but it’s an optional extra. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you should charge extra for.

  7. 7
    trollhattan says:

    @[Individual 1] mistermix:
    IIUC they also had to move the wings to accommodate the longer fuselage and greater payload (i.e., more payfolks). Anecdotally, pilots evidently aren’t fond of the Max.

  8. 8
    WaterGirl says:

    @Mike J:

    It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you should charge extra for.

    Please allow me to fix that for you:

  9. 9
    dmsilev says:

    Don’t forget to blame the airlines. One article I was reading the other day suggested that airline demands lead to the design constraints that caused the issue:

    * The 737 MAX is nose heavy, requiring the aforementioned software hack to make it behave equivalently to older variants
    * It is nose heavy because the new, bigger, engines had to be moved forward of the wing rather than directly underneath so that there would be enough ground clearance without making the landing gear taller.
    * Some airlines didn’t want the gear to be taller because it would mean that the doors would be further off the ground and boarding via external stairs (i.e. not from jetways) would become impractical.

  10. 10
  11. 11
    dmsilev says:

    Also, when I saw the title of this post, I thought it was going to be about the massive waste of money that is the SLS (formally the Space Launch System, but often called the Senate Launch System because various Senators, most notably Richard Shelby of Alabama, have foisted it on NASA because of the billions of dollars in pork spending involved). Returning to the Moon is one of the supposed missions that only SLS can do (and, no, that’s not true).

  12. 12
    Mike in NC says:

    Read the other day that Fat Bastard at some point came up with a list of approximately 63 federal agencies that he wanted abolished. No doubt many if not most were regulatory in nature. Without looking it up, the list could have included EPA, FAA, CDC, NTSB, FDA, ATF and on and on. Over the years, Republicans have constantly tried to privatize or abolish important government bodies that were designed to give us stuff like clean air and clean water.

  13. 13
  14. 14
    Seanly says:

    My field of engineering, bridge engineering, is very similar in that we can’t just use the same response over & over. Each bridge is a little to a lot different. There are canned bridges for some specific applications (TXDOT has a lot of pick & match standard drawings, but they only apply in a few circumstances).
    Case in point just this afternoon. About 2.5 years ago, we were selected to replace a bridge over a canal. Not a very long span and the abutments don’t need to be too deep. Mitigating factors – the original bridge was built 100′ wide and takes up the entire right-of-way. One quadrant is a potentially historic farm. The canal maintains access roads on both shores of the canal so we have to accommodate them crossing the road. Add in that Idaho Transportation Dept (ITD) wants to eventually make this a boulevard corridor (buzzword for pleasant medians & grass strips separating wide pedestrian facilities from the cars), but not for 10 to 20 years.
    So we proceed with our roadway design, environmental clearance, hydraulic design, and I start developing bridge concepts. Did I mention that we can only work on the edges of the canal in November through March? So we come up with a couple of clever schemes to use precast abutments and use steel girders in pairs with a set deck width above them. The girder pairs would be grouted together to make the current 100′ width and in the future when you have two 72′ wide bridges you can take apart the superstructure, rearrange the girder pairs, and just get a few new ones to finish it off.
    Then ITD decided that they wanted to put the construction funds for this project into something else and we just did fiber reinforced repair to the existing bridge.
    That was a year ago and the repair was never done. I just heard today, that a nearby intersection design is changing the lane configuration on the bridge so now ITD is looking to maybe replace the bridge again.
    We still have about 45% of our original fee left, but we wouldn’t be able to just pick back up where we were. The new interchange nearby means our roadway work is no good. If we know that we’re going to be wider and the bridge already takes up all of the ROW then we’re going to have to take land which means a more rigorous environmental analysis. My ideas to make the new bridge easily expandable in the future may not be needed.
    So while we spent about 55% of our original contract and could do a lot of good work with that, we’d have to get a sizable extra to finish the design.

  15. 15
    Brachiator says:


    Techno-weenie article here (with good illustrations).


  16. 16
    Brachiator says:


    was it this one

    Yep! That’s it. Thanks.

  17. 17
    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    HA HA HA HA HA Irish Gay Prime Minister and and his boyfriend had breakfast with Pence and Mother. Man Mother must have been pissed. HA HA HA HA


    It gets better Mother wasn’t there and Pence had to call in his sister to stand in. HA HA HA HA

  18. 18

    Burt Bralliar, a Balloon-Juice regular, forwarded this article and comments, and I’m feeling less upset about this whole mess. I had felt angry that Boeing didn’t fix the software right after the crash in Indonesia – having heard comments on TV that it would take 6-8 weeks. Now after reading all the above, I think I have a more realistic sense of the complexities involved. I appreciate being more informed.

  19. 19
    White & Gold Purgatorian says:

    I believe that is Pence’s sister, Anne, not Mother — who was away from home or otherwise indisposed.

    Edited to add: Never mind.

  20. 20
    Grumpy Old Railroader says:

    Same same with the Federal Railway Administration. Although there have been many exemplar FRA field inspectors, it is what happens behind closed doors in DC between the railroads and administrators that undermine the entire process. The great work of the NTSB that has been able to drill down to the core of many railroad accidents

  21. 21
    WaterGirl says:

    @Litlebritdifrnt: @White & Gold Purgatorian: I would bet my house that the sister had to stand in because Mother could not bear to be in the company of that disgusting gayness. (obviously her attitude, not mine)

  22. 22
    J R in WV says:


    I would bet my house that the sister had to stand in because Mother [Mrs. Pence] could not bear to be in the company of that disgusting gayness. (obviously her attitude, not mine)

    And I would be willing to bet that way as well…. maybe not my house, which is in the center of our farm, but a large sum for sure. What a surprise, our VP’s wife is unable to carry out the tiny assignments diplomacy requires of her!

    Perhaps VP Pence should resign so as not to damage our standing in the world? Sometimes I crack me up!!!! Hahaha!

  23. 23
    Sab says:

    @Seanly: We have amazing lurkers.

    Also too, I sort of stomped on a lurker in the middle of the night (EST) who criticized an author I likrd 30 years ago and haven’t read since. Implied he was a troll. Ruckus set me straight, but damage was done because I stomped on a lurker.

    I haven’t had the time yet to go back and find him and personally apologize. I also haven’t had time to reread and possibly re-evaluate the author. And his comment made me do that.

  24. 24
    Steeplejack says:


    [. . .] because Mother could not bear to be in the company of that disgusting gayness.

    Her husband’s or the Irish guys’?

  25. 25
    Sab says:

    @J R in WV: Why does eemom think you are my mentor? Last I saw you called me a troll ( which was inaccurate but deserved because I was picking on Helen in Eire who is almost invariably sweet and funny.)

  26. 26
    WaterGirl says:

    @Steeplejack: ha! It would be both if she weren’t in denial.

  27. 27
    Raoul says:

    The whole idea that a new airplane should be augmented to fly like a different airplane, rather than have it fly the way its actual engineered shape and function would dictate — all so that airlines wouldn’t have to pay pilots for ‘difference training’ — is, in itself both a failure of engineering and a failure of regulation.
    And it’s stupid to boot!

    Boeing has done serious harm to its business reputation over saving their customers some one-time costs to train and certify pilots on a new model of an aircraft. I mean, it’s still (more or less) a 737. Difference training to get a type rating on a MAX that actually flew like a MAX couldn’t possibly have been much more than a couple days of classroom and maybe an hour simulator time, could it? Yes it would be X 1000s of pilots, but incrementally, as fleets expand. Big whoop in a billion dollar industry.


  28. 28
    J R in WV says:


    Well, late at night I have been know to go off on people who irritate me, or otherwise upset me. I do not remember giving you a hard time, and apologize for calling you a troll, but Helen in Eire is a really good Jackal, so I will jump to her defense.

    eemom is somewhat odd, or strange, along with Brick-head Paste and Pogonip, both of whom are in the pie safe. I will admit I do click on the translate Pie into English function pretty often, just to see what stupidity the trolls are up to. As well as to see other folks’ responses to them.

    Take care!

    I try not to comment so much at 2 or 3 am any more…

  29. 29
    john fremont says:

    In March 2018, at the industry’s marquee event — Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo — academics from the University of North Dakota (UND) told the industry it was facing a very real, and very severe labor shortage. Based on interviews and surveys completed by 250 helicopter companies and operators, the UND predicted a shortfall of 7,649 helicopter pilots and 40,613 mechanics (across all aviation sectors) in the U.S. between 2018 and 2036. Such numbers would clearly have a staggering impact on the industry.

  30. 30
    Sab says:

    @J R in WV: You did hurt my feelings, but I absolutely and utterly and completely deserved it. I started with a casual comment to Helen that came out nastier than I intended. Then I went away and did stuff. When I came back the thread was nuts about my comment. Rather than back off and reconsider what I had said I jumped right in to defend myself and became truly obnoxious. Meanwhile Helen was probably just sitting in a pub trying to chat online. She got angry because I was obnoxious. I believe at some point I actually questionned her patriotism. Somewhere in the course of that you called me a troll. Eventually ruemara told me to stop digging so I did.

    So I was surprised when months later (last night) eemom called you my mentor. Just wondered if you have anymore idea of what she was referring to than I do, because I am clueless. Apparently she was just ranting.

  31. 31
    john fremont says:

    This is not the only safety issue in the aerospace / aviation sector. There is also a labor issue looming with pilots. Sorry, here is the link to the original article.

    <a href="https://www.verticalmag.com/features/does-the-helicopter-industry-have-a-people-problem

    The issue is again, pilots and mechanics/technicians investing thousands of dollars in their educations and certifications to go into a job market that offers low pay for entry level positions.
    The operator companies are also looking to skim as much out of labor costs as possible although they want pilots and mechanics that can jump right into the job.

  32. 32
    Sab says:

    You only could hurt my feelings because I respect your comments so much. Everyday, and also the stuff you send Alain.

    ETA: response to J R in WV

  33. 33
    dww44 says:

    @Sab: What genre was the referenced author writing in? I ask, because just last week there was a thread over at Booman Tribune in which the subject of Balloon-Juice came up in the comments as being a surprisingly informative blog but with commenters who, in the commenters view’s weren’t exactly open minded as one of the Booman commenters had weighed in at BJ on a discussion of books of some sort and got stomped on as a troll.

  34. 34
    James E Powell says:

    so I’ll confess that I am a major National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report junkie.

    Hey! Me too. I’m not perverse, I get into the analysis, accident reconstruction. I’m often amazed at how well they investigators do.

  35. 35
    Sab says:

    @dww44: Scifi fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay was the author in question.

  36. 36
    Sab says:

    @dww44: Thank you. I hope you can fix what I broke.q

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