March 18, 2019, © Leeham News: There’s a saying that history repeats itself.
When it comes to the crisis of the Boeing 737 MAX, I’m reminded of the crisis Lockheed faced in 1959-1960 when the Electra propjet crashed in September and the following March, killing all aboard both airplanes.
The Electra entered service Jan. 12, 1959, with Eastern Airlines. It was considered a pilot’s airplane. Coming off decades of piston engine aircraft and early in the jet age, the Electra was the only airplane that was over-powered, piston or jet. Timing, however, was poor and crashes soon overtook the euphoria.
American Airlines lost an Electra on Feb. 3, when it flew into the water on approach to New York La Guardia Airport. In the history of commercial aviation, no new airplane had crashed within three weeks of entry into service. Pilot error was blamed and other than suspicion that a new type of altimeter fooled the pilot, the Electra itself was cleared.
The Electra crisis began on Sept. 29 when Braniff Airways lost an Electra over Buffalo (TX). It was a clear night, the airplane was at cruising altitude and for no apparent reason, a wing came off.
By the next March, the Civil Aeronautics Board (the forerunner of the National Transportation Safety Board) was completely stumped. The CAB was unable to remotely understand why the wing separated from the airplane.
Then on St. Patrick’s Day, a Northwest Airlines Electra lost a wing cruising in level flight over Tell City (IN). All were killed.
Two virtually new, modern airliners lost wings in level flight. Calls were made by media and Congressional members to ground the airplanes. The FAA refused, though it did enact speed and other flight restrictions.
Eventually, a phenomenon called whirl mode was identified as the culprit. The propellers on the outboard engines began to oscillate and eventually shook the wings to death. Lockheed spent $25m ($212m in 2018 dollars) redesigning and fixing the wing and engine mounts. Customer compensation and legal costs came on top of this.
Full details of these accidents and the investigations are covered in the out-of-print book, The Electra Story, by the late Robert J. Serling. The book is occasionally available on EBay or Amazon.
All this came flooding back in memory in the last week as the second MAX crashed under circumstances similar to the first. The two MAXes were virtually new, just like the Electras (the Braniff Electra in fact was only nine days old). The circumstances between the two 737 and the two Electra crashes were similar. The FAA was reluctant to ground the two airplanes.
The next steps remain to be seen.
To assure the public the Electras were safe to fly even under the speed restrictions while the investigations were underway, pilots formed groups to visit newspapers to explain why the public could fly the planes with confidence.
With the MAX, United, American and Southwest pilots—along with Boeing—issued statements that the MAX was safe to fly. (Personal visits to media weren’t possible in the short time between the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the MAX groundings.) But the statements from all the parties were noticeably absent of details. Why the pilots and Boeing believed the MAX was safe in the wake of two crashes five months apart under similar circumstances was not explained.
Boeing belatedly acknowledged it was working on a software fix, saying this would make a safe airplane even safer. The words rang hollow under the circumstances.
Southwest pilots apparently underwent specialized training, but this wasn’t really discussed. American equipped its MAXes with a second angle of attack indicator, but little was said about this and why it was important. United said nothing about anything other than the plane is safe.
Nobody explained why the MAX was safe when everyone else was grounding the airplane.
LNA’s Judson Rollins rapped Boeing’s knuckles for communications failure. The failure doesn’t stop with Boeing. Transport Canada, the last holdout before the FAA finally acted, the FAA, Air Canada, WestJet, American, Southwest and United also failed to say why they maintained the MAX was safe when everyone else said it wasn’t through groundings and banning overflights.
Nobody handled the communicating to the flying public well.
This should be a case study in communications crisis management.
Donald Trump once again demonstrated that those who support him are thrown overboard without notice.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg and Boeing began cozying up to Trump after he became president-elect. $1m for the inauguration (something Boeing did for Barack Obama as well, it must be pointed out), sticking with Trump’s executive advisory board after other CEOs abandoned him in the wake of Trump’s Charlottesville neo-Nazi support, etc.
In the current crisis, Trump first Tweeted how airplanes became too sophisticated, thinly veiled shots at the 737. Then, according to the Washington Post, Trump disparaged the 737 and said he’d never buy the airplane for his (failed) Trump Shuttle.
When it suits his purpose, Trump bails on anyone who has been loyal to him in the past. Boeing is just the latest victim.