Late Night Sercon Industry Story: How Much Trouble is Boeing Really Facing?

This… does not sound great. But is there liable to be any action taken, apart from grieving families suing the company?

As Boeing hustled in 2015 to catch up to Airbus and certify its new 737 MAX, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) managers pushed the agency’s safety engineers to delegate safety assessments to Boeing itself, and to speedily approve the resulting analysis.

But the original safety analysis that Boeing delivered to the FAA for a new flight control system on the MAX — a report used to certify the plane as safe to fly — had several crucial flaws.

That flight control system, called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), is now under scrutiny after two crashes of the jet in less than five months resulted in Wednesday’s FAA order to ground the plane…

The safety analysis:

– Understated the power of the new flight control system, which was designed to swivel the horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document.

– Failed to account for how the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the airplane’s nose downward.

– Assessed a failure of the system as one level below “catastrophic.” But even that “hazardous” danger level should have precluded activation of the system based on input from a single sensor — and yet that’s how it was designed…

Both Boeing and the FAA were informed of the specifics of this story and were asked for responses 11 days ago, before the second crash of a 737 MAX last Sunday


62 replies
  1. 1
    trollhattan says:

    I think the merde is pretty deep for Boeing and this could open the door to short-haul planes from makers in Japan, China, Brazil, etc. In addition to EADS. The 737 backlog is huge so watch for cancellations.

  2. 2
    lumpkin says:

    Development started when Obama was president but the aircraft went into service on trump’s watch. Remember him bragging about personally making air travel safe? Betcha he blames this on Obama. Can’t have his perfect safety record besmirched.

  3. 3
    The Dangerman says:

    How Much Trouble is Boeing Really Facing?

    They’ll be writing a lot of checks, each containing a lot of zeroes, with lots of people getting shit canned.

  4. 4
    Mike J says:

    @trollhattan: They had been rolling 52/month out of the Renton plant, with plans to go to 57. One of our racing crew is a machinist who had taken an early retirement buyout and then got paid to come back to help knock down the backlog.

  5. 5
    dmbeaster says:

    Wow, this is bad. So the plane is porpoising because it wrongly points the nose down to avert a non-existent stall, the pilot responds to pull it back up, and the plane then repeats the manuever because the erroneous stall response resets and repeats the nose down manuever. Until the pilot finally loses control and crashes ( probably because repeated porpoising leads to a stall), nose hard down as mandated by the effed up Boeing MCAS system.

  6. 6

    Jesus, that Friedesdorf take….

  7. 7
    Mary G says:

    The stock price has gone down a lot, so investors are bailing out.

  8. 8
    NotMax says:

    Boeing, Boeing, gone.


  9. 9
    Citizen Alan says:

    Didn’t Conor FriersDork post here at one point before he ran away crying after everyone pointed out what a moron he was? Or am I thinking of some other Libertarian buffoon?

  10. 10
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Citizen Alan:

    Didn’t Conor FriersDork post here at one point before he ran away crying after everyone pointed out what a moron he was? Or am I thinking of some other Libertarian buffoon?

    I think you may be thinking of Freddie deBoer.

  11. 11
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Citizen Alan: @SiubhanDuinne: What about EDK?

  12. 12
    otmar says:

    The Airbus 320neo also has a huge backlog of orders. So switching away from Boeing is not easy.

  13. 13
  14. 14
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Oh good God I had blissfully forgotten the existence of that knucklehead.

  15. 15
    Redshift says:

    This… does not sound great. But is there liable to be any action taken, apart from grieving families suing the company?

    Apparently the Justice Department has issued subpoenas to Boeing, so there seems to be more action than we might have expected.

  16. 16
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Off the top of my head, I don’t know who EDK is (although I’m sure, when you enlighten me, I’ll do a forehead duh-slap that can be heard in the next apartment).

  17. 17
    Amir Khalid says:

    The plane-making business doesn’t work really on short notice; typically, years will pass between order and delivery. If there is an industry-wide shift away from Boeing to other manufacturers for planes in the 737 class, it will take time for other players to ramp up production and there would be delivery delays on that kind of time scale.

  18. 18
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: @SiubhanDuinne:

    Oh wait. Was there an E. D. Kane at one time? I’m not sure I ever paid any attention. He (I guess, but maybe she) must not have been here long.

  19. 19
    NotMax says:

    @Amir Khalid

    Jared will fix it. //

  20. 20
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Yep, there was one.

  21. 21
    Felanius Kootea says:

    I wish I could be mad right now but I’m fighting back tears imagining how terrifying it must have been for a passenger on that doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight. RIP Pius. I’m just gutted. Thanks to everyone who shared their condolences last week. Back to lurking for me.

  22. 22

    @SiubhanDuinne: EDK was not here very long, or very interesting.

    I don’t like deBoer’s writing but I also wouldn’t classify him as a libertarian, really. Sort of a straight-white-male leftish ‘snowflake’ with an MRA streak, easily confused with a libertarian when they get upset.

  23. 23
    NotMax says:


    IIRC it was Kain.

  24. 24
    NotMax says:

    Okay, I give up. What the heck is a Sercon?

  25. 25
    Sebastian says:

    I think this is one of those scandals that will break through. Easy to understand, nearly everyone affected. Not sure if Trump will remain teflon for this one.

  26. 26
    PJ says:

    @Major Major Major Major: It’s not surprising that Friedersdorf was a Sullivan intern. “Capitalism” didn’t create air safety, which is the product of almost a century of government regulation. For Friedersdorf and Sullivan, regulatory capture, leading to insufficient testing and oversight, leading to the deaths of hundreds of passengers in preventable crashes, is just an appropriate and rational response to bureaucratic red tape. The fact that wealthy corporations get away with taking the lives of passengers is a small price to pay for the benefits of capitalism.

  27. 27

    @PJ: sully had some good interns too, though he didn’t elevate them in the same way. But yeah.

  28. 28
  29. 29
    Mike J says:

    @NotMax: Serious & constructive.

  30. 30
    Mary G says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Erik Kain who was here for like a week. He posted about the horrors of government doing trash pick-up rather than the private sector and got piled on. He blogs about video games mostly at Forbes now.

  31. 31
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Major Major Major Major: Nah, Erik ‘Hall Monitor’ Kaine got a better gig at Forbes (for a while, anyways) — I always assumed he only deigned to hang around with us in the first place because it was a wider platform than he could access on his own.

  32. 32
    Anne Laurie says:


    What the heck is a Sercon?

    Serious + Constructive (sf fannish slang, which I think deserves wider internet usage).

  33. 33

    @Anne Laurie:

    I always assumed he only deigned to hang around with us in the first place because it was a wider platform than he could access on his own.

    Also my impression ETA now that you’ve corrected me and jogged my memory!

  34. 34
    Mary G says:

    @Anne Laurie: He’s still at Forbes. He does TV reviews/recaps besides the video games, and I read his Game of Thrones posts.

  35. 35
    Amir Khalid says:

    How much trouble is Boeing really facing? A buttload, one would hope. Airlines all over the planet that have 737 MAXs on order will have contacted Boeing for reassurance. If they don’t like what Boeing tells them, they could cancel their orders and start talking to Airbus. Any such shift will of course mean delays in renewing their fleets, resulting in lost time and money and business opportunities, a situation that will not earn much customer goodwill for Boeing.

  36. 36
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Mary G: Yeah, Game of Thrones reviews seem better suited to his interests — as I understand it, a totally FREE MARKET world! (if also imaginary, as such Libertarian paradises always seem to be).

    Forbes (and the Washington Monthly, for some reason) always crashes my browser, so I’m not gonna go looking for him.

  37. 37
    otmar says:

    The really interesting move by the EU would be to state that there are fundamental problems with the FAA’s certification process and stop accepting FAA’s certs for the European market.

    That would be hugely disruptive for Boeing.

  38. 38
    Amir Khalid says:

    Good point, and from what we know it seems there is good reason for the EU to consider it. But it’s clearly a very big step, and probably not the first thing they’ll do.

  39. 39

    @Anne Laurie: I remember stumbling on one of his video game posts somewhat recently, I was impressed with neither style nor content.

  40. 40
    Ruckus says:

    @Amir Khalid:
    I currently work for a company making tooling for the aircraft industry for them to make components. Our lead time can be months depending on what it is. The tooling we build is mostly for the mfg of hydraulic components, and most of those now are for Airbus planes. This is not the first time I’ve provided parts and tooling for the industry, I used to do precision mfg for suppliers of Boeing and Airbus nearly 3 decades ago. But with all the design, and part requirements the lead time from design to flying is several years. Every part has to be designed and then all the tooling to build and inspect each part has to be built after that. It used to take a decade or more but modern mfg has allowed that to be trimmed back somewhat.
    What gets me is that everything in the hardware end is 100% inspected, but here is a software defect that seems to have been given the OK as if it were a new app to play solitaire on your phone.

  41. 41

    @Anne Laurie: I was trying to parse it as a subspecies of conservative, haha

  42. 42
    NotMax says:

    @Anne Laurie

    Thank you. Have been in and out of SF fandom for over 50 years yet have never heard that until tonight. Still unsure what its adjectival application in the headline is meant to be saying, though.

  43. 43
    Martin says:

    There will be huge fallout from this.

    The FAA’s competing responsibilities for promoting US air manufacturers and for oversight have always been a problem, but it’s now killed people in 2 countries. I would expect now that foreign nations won’t trust the FAA and will demand their own certifications. Boeing will lose a huge number or orders. Democrats will almost certainly restructure the FAA into two organizations when they get the chance – move the oversight in with the NTSB (who are often at odds with the FAA) and move the promotion component under the Commerce Department.

    I don’t know how Muilenburg still has his job. The board should have demanded his head once it came out he was lobbying Trump to not ground the planes. It’s going to take a decade for Boeing to get their reputation back.

  44. 44
    SRW1 says:

    @Anne Laurie:
    Is the way WaMo crashes for you that the site seems to freeze after the initial loading and not allow scrolling down?

    In that case, reloading the site solves the problem. The bug and the solution are highly reproduceable. It’s a bit bizarre and if it weren’t for Nancy LeTourneaux, I’d probably also have given up on WaPo.

  45. 45
    Anne Laurie says:

    @SRW1: Nah, the Monthly literally crashes my browser (PaleMoon, Firefox variant) — a few seconds of freeze, and then PM shuts down & needs to be restarted. My laptop is old & buggy & my tech expert is both quirky and unfireable (being as I married him).

    Forbes gives me an endless-loop ‘click here to access’ message, but I haven’t cared enough about reading anything on Forbes to do more than avoid it.

  46. 46
    ant says:

    The way I see it, is that this is a huge embarrassment for the United States.

    We design and make these things here, and then sell them all over the globe. The rest of the world looks at us now, and thinks, wow, what a bunch of fucking morons.

  47. 47
    Sab says:

    @Martin: It hasn’t just killed people in two countries, it has killed more than 300 people, many of them amazing, from many countries, in just two crashes.

  48. 48
    Sab says:

    @ant: @ant: Yeah. Don’t want to piss off your idiot bosses, and then, having satisfied your idiot bosses, you manage to accidentaly kill three hundred people by negligence in plain sight of the whole world. Excuses may be great internally in your corporation, but out in the world those three hundred people are still dead.

    I work in accounting, doing tax returns. Not huge tax returns. We still have higher standards than these aerospace engineers seem to have had

  49. 49
    Jay says:

    Canada is now talking about FAA Certs being worthless.

    Trickle Down theory says everything else is.

  50. 50
    David Evans says:

    Friedersdorf is an idiot. On the other hand it’s too simple to blame it all on capitalism. Aeroflot, the Soviet Union’s airline, had a terrible safety record. The pressure to make the organization look good – and, in the last analysis, to keep Stalin happy – can be as corrupting as the profit motive.

  51. 51
    Cermet says:

    I once designed, programmed and built a “finished” prototype device that provided critical information that if false, could lead to the death of hundreds. I spent months making sure that any and all errors/failures and even stupidity by the user would never lead to false information. I built numerous redundancies into both the hardware and software. I had available only two unrelated sensor inputs and used both to cross-check against. If either failed or disagreed, then the system would show an error, not the incorrect data. I ran hundreds of tests under extreme conditions and also a three month real world test period before I said it was ready for the end user. What Boeing did was, is and remains so irresponsible it is criminal. Engineer’s that are tasked with vital systems are responsible to determine failure modes and fixes. Since computers are tiny and can be embedded so easily, it is trivial to create logic trains that can both predict outcomes and test for the system responding in an incorrect manner and provide a warning of such. Also, disable the system if any parameter exceeds recommend ranges. This entire Boeing fuck up is inexcusable since basic safety engineering procedures were apparently not followed.

  52. 52
    debbie says:

    I remember self-monitoring working out really well for banks. //

  53. 53
    SFAW says:


    What the heck is a Sercon?

    He/it was the Servant of Morgoth.

  54. 54
    Skepticat says:


    The rest of the world looks at us now, and thinks, wow, what a bunch of fucking morons.

    If only this were limited to aviation problems.

  55. 55
    WaterGirl says:

    @Felanius Kootea: I was haunted for weeks after the buildings collapsed on Sept 11. At first, I could not stop thinking about the people who were surely trapped under the rubble, in a panic and wondering if they would be found. After that, I was haunted by the thought of everyone who died in that way, and by all the people who were calling loved ones to say they loved them and say goodbye.

    I am guessing that what you are feeling is a lot like that was for me, and it was a terrible weight on my soul. Sometimes I think that being empathetic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  56. 56
    oldgold says:

    The inevitable has occurred. Trump has directly responded to George Conway on Twitter. This should be fun!

  57. 57
    Betty says:

    I see that they also have problems with their new 737 Max10. Yikes!

  58. 58
    Barbara says:

    The world can’t do much when our broken political process results in horrifying presidential choices, but the world can and will do something when our broken political process allows planes to be certified as safe notwithstanding known defects and problems. If they really thought that the FAA is the only hurdle Boeing faces to be commercially successful then the people who run Boeing are idiots. This is how we will lose power, when the rest of the world stops trusting us to do the right thing.

  59. 59
    JDM says:

    Raise hands, anyone who thinks anyone at either Boeing or the FAA will do jail time over this.

    Audi execs did time in jail and they didn’t actually kill anyone.

  60. 60
    J R in WV says:


    … What gets me is that everything in the hardware end is 100% inspected, but here is a software defect that seems to have been given the OK as if it were a new app to play solitaire on your phone.

    This !!! Software is invisible, metaphysical, hard to test. People in serious testing programs are highly specialized, and they are hard to recruit, difficult to identify, and hard to manage. Testing and (nearly non-existent) certification of software to be error-free is at the cutting edge of the developer’s art. Think NASA and space ships!

    But the same degree of certainty as NASA wants to have is necessary for software installed to fly aircraft, whether in space or from NYC-LGA to LAX. More so, as far more people fly in even a 737 than in a Space Shuttle. Of course, NASA managed to crash two Shuttles, so Boeing crashing two 737 Max 8s is pretty equal.

    We know that NASA’s crashes was because of management making decisions that should have been made by engineers. I suspect we will learn the same thing about Boeing’s software for their 737 Max. Bigger engines, different size, moved wings, no big deal, we’ll write a software patch for that???? WTF???

    In my experience using software to metaphysically fix a real world physical problem is wrong, wrong, wrong! But I’m not a certified engineer, just an old software dog.

    ETA: And just because it is hard to test software exhaustively doesn’t mean at all that it can be scrimped and avoided — it means that sufficient resources MUST be allocated to that part of the development process when lives are at stake!!

  61. 61
    central texas says:


    Could be. But if the EU does aircraft the way they do automobile engine pollution and efficiency, I am not reassured.

  62. 62
    Mo MacArbie says:

    I thought sercon was what one encrusted tweezers with.

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