“Downfall:” A Flawed Documentary About The 737 MAX

The new Netflix documentary “Downfall: the Case Against Boeing” was released on Feb. 17. Its theme is that Boeing was once a trusted engineer-based organization, but became so profit-driven that it cut corners and compromised safety when developing the 737-MAX. The loss of a loved one is a horrifying experience. It is understandable that people want to place blame. But is it simplistic to focus just on Boeing’s role?

If a brand new plane crashes, it might seem to be the manufacturer’s fault. Not necessarily. Let’s say you have a new SUV. You run across something and damage a tire. A new tire is $400. A used one is available for $100. The tire dealer assures you the used tire is fine. You have it installed. A few days later, the used tire blows out. You hit the brakes. Hitting the brakes causes you to lose control and uyou crash the SUV.

You could blame yourself for not being skillful enough to handle a blowout. You could blame whoever taught you to drive for not telling you how to deal with a blowout. You could blame the car manufacturer for not making the car easier to handle. You could blame yourself for cost-cutting. You could blame the dealer who sold you the faulty tire.

Drivers my age were taught to deal with a blowout. That was because tires were not as reliable as they are now. Most drivers now are not taught to deal with a blowout. If that is your situation, read this info from Firestone on how. It is titled “How To Survive A Tire Blowout.”

Most accidents are caused by a combination of factors. This documentary blames only Boeing. The viewer is not told the sensor that triggered the emergency was a secondhand unit. It had been reconditioned by a Florida company that was later shut down by the FAA. The Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee says the sensor was off by 21 degrees.

The reconditioned sensor caused the plane’s stabilizer trim to operate when it should not have. The sensor, which the documentary refers to as “damaged,” fed incorrect data into the plane’s flight controls. The documentary claims this would cause the MAX to become uncontrollable before its pilots could understand what was going on and correct the problem.

Not true. Beginning with the 707, Boeing pilots were required to memorize the runaway stabilizer procedure and perform the procedure flawlessly in a flight simulator. Pilots who were taught to deal with a runaway stabilizer were dumbfounded when they heard about the MAX crash. How could any pilot lose control of a plane due to runaway stabilizer, regardless of its cause? The answer is, some airlines cut training costs by not providing runaway stabilizer training for their pilots.

After the Lion Air crash, Boeing told reporters that the pilots did not deal with the runaway stabilizer problem as they would have expected any pilot to. Apparently Boeing, like myself and other pilots who were properly trained, could not understand why such a simple procedure was not carried out as second nature.

Such training was apparently not part of the Lion Air curriculum. Nevertheless, the first three times the malfunction occurred, the pilots dealt with the problem using the procedure in the manual. The fourth time the malfunction occurred, the pilots did not know the procedure. A pilot who was hitching a ride in the cockpit did. He guided the pilots at the controls through it. The fact that a pilot seated behind the pilots at the controls could guide them through the procedure makes it clear that the malfunction could be easily dealt with by any properly trained pilot.

After each of those flights landed, the pilots reported the malfunction to maintenance. Time after time, maintenance claimed the problem had been fixed, and the plane was certified as airworthy. On the fifth flight, though the pilots should have memorized the runaway stabilizer procedure, it appears they were unaware of the procedure. There was no pilot hitching a ride to help them out. They crashed.

The documentary does not mention any of these earlier flights. There is no information about the chronically reoccurring malfunction. There is no hint that incompetent maintenance was a factor. The documentary completely hides the fact that a long-established procedure — one that goes back to the 707 — easily solved the problem four times before a crew that did not know the procedure crashed the plane.

This undisclosed information would have destroyed the central themes of the documentary: that when the malfunction took place, nothing could be done, and everyone on board was doomed because of Boeing cost-cutting.

The public does not understand that many of today’s pilots are experience-starved. On an eight-hour international flight, one pilot flies the plane by hand during takeoff. The plane is on autopilot during climb, cruise, descent, and landing. Of the 480 minutes the plane is in the air, one of the two pilots gets five minutes to manually control the plane. This means a pilot who has logged 10,000 hours of flight time may have only 100 hours of hands-on flying experience. Some pilots have lost their ability to land an airliner by hand. Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed in 2013 at San Francisco on a beautiful sunny day because the instrument landing system (ILS) needed for an automatic landing on runway 28L was out of service, and none of the pilots in the cockpit — including a supervisory pilot — were skillful enough to safely land the plane by hand.

Lack of hands-on flying experience may have been a factor in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The copilot had only 361 hours of flying time. When presented with the malfunction, the captain was obviously faced with more than he could handle. Standard procedure in an emergency is one pilot flies the plane and the other pilot deals with the emergency. If both pilots focus on a malfunction, the plane could crash simply because no one is flying it. We know this basic cockpit management was not applied because after takeoff, the throttles were left in the takeoff position. While the pilots focused on the malfunction, the plane accelerated at full throttle above the maximum allowable speed for the aircraft. Though the runaway stabilizer trim checklist was partially carried out, the excessive speed of the plane made it impossible for the pilots to turn the trim wheel enough by hand to regain control of the plane. For an in-depth understanding of the Ethiopian Airlines crew’s actions, see this video by pilot Juan Browne.

When Captain Chesley Sullenberger testified before Congress about the MAX crashes, he made it clear that blame was not limited to Boeing, He said, “We must make sure that everyone who occupies a pilot seat is fully armed with the information, knowledge, training, skill, experience, and judgment they need to be able to be the absolute master of the aircraft and all its component systems, and of the situation, simultaneously and continuously throughout a flight… Pilots must develop the muscle memory to be able to quickly and effectively respond to a sudden emergency. Reading about it on an iPad is not even close to sufficient; pilots must experience it physically, firsthand.”

The cost-cutting this documentary blames on Boeing starts elsewhere: dropping the traditional simulator training for dealing with runaway stabilizer. Airlines compete in a completely unregulated market. This puts manufacturers in a position where a key selling point for an airliner is how little training its pilots may be able to get by with. This is dangerous. Reductions in training become more dangerous as airliners become more automated. Sullenberger explains why. “I’m one of the relatively small group of people who have experienced such a sudden crisis — and lived to share what we learned about it. I can tell you firsthand that the startle factor is real and it is huge — it interferes with one’s ability to quickly analyze the crisis and take effective action.”

No manufacturer can build a plane that can be flown without extensive hands-on training. No manufacturer can design a plane that can fly safely without good maintenance. This is true regardless of how much money and resources an aircraft manufacturer puts into its product. Increased safety will be possible only when airlines are required to provide pilots with far more comprehensive hands-on training, be it in an actual airliner or in a simulator.

If you watch this so-called documentary, it will be difficult — if not impossible — to not be swayed by its grossly dishonest and irresponsibly biased presentation. If you watch it, come back and read what I have written again. Even so, it still may leave an impact. My suggestion is that you trash can the idea of viewing such trash.

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Tom Bunn is a retired airline captain and licensed therapist. He is the originator of the SOAR Fear of Flying Program.

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