A reader directs me to an interesting article on the Boeing 737 Max problems, which I’ve written about before. Basically, Boeing wanted to fit larger and better engines onto an old airframe, and they could only do so in a way which changed the aerodynamic characteristics of the aircraft. This isn’t unusual, but with the 737 Max they changed beyond what is normally expected or allowed for a passenger jet:
An airplane approaching an aerodynamic stall cannot, under any circumstances, have a tendency to go further into the stall. This is called “dynamic instability,” and the only airplanes that exhibit that characteristic—fighter jets—are also fitted with ejection seats.
It violated that most ancient of aviation canons and probably violated the certification criteria of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. But instead of going back to the drawing board and getting the airframe hardware right (more on that below), Boeing relied on something called the “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System,” or MCAS.
In other words, they kludged it. They chose to use a software fix rather than a hardware redesign for obvious reasons: cost. And we start to get an inkling of what’s gone wrong from there:
The flight management computer is a computer. What that means is that it’s not full of aluminum bits, cables, fuel lines, or all the other accoutrements of aviation. It’s full of lines of code. And that’s where things get dangerous.
Those lines of code were no doubt created by people at the direction of managers. Neither such coders nor their managers are as in touch with the particular culture and mores of the aviation world as much as the people who are down on the factory floor, riveting wings on, designing control yokes, and fitting landing gears. Those people have decades of institutional memory about what has worked in the past and what has not worked. Software people do not.
In the old days, the FAA had armies of aviation engineers in its employ. Those FAA employees worked side by side with the airplane manufacturers to determine that an airplane was safe and could be certified as airworthy.
As airplanes became more complex and the gulf between what the FAA could pay and what an aircraft manufacturer could pay grew larger, more and more of those engineers migrated from the public to the private sector. Soon the FAA had no in-house ability to determine if a particular airplane’s design and manufacture were safe. So the FAA said to the airplane manufacturers, “Why don’t you just have your people tell us if your designs are safe?”
Thus was born the concept of the “Designated Engineering Representative,” or DER. DERs are people in the employ of the airplane manufacturers, the engine manufacturers, and the software developers who certify to the FAA that it’s all good.
So we’ve gone from the FAA employing people who know what they’re doing and make sure an aircraft is safe to one where…well, we know the pattern by now:
Former President Barack Obama’s administration implemented a plan to “transform” the FAA into “a more diverse and inclusive workplace,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced in May 2013. The decision was backed by administration officials and labor unions.
True, this concerns air traffic controllers but as numerous examples featured on this blog have shown, the primary purpose of many modern organisations, especially those in the public sector, is to provide employment for middle class voting blocs. So the FAA turned itself useless and basically asked Boeing to mark its own homework.
Now this is not quite as sinister a conflict of interest as it sounds. It is in nobody’s interest that airplanes crash. The industry absolutely relies on the public trust, and every crash is an existential threat to the industry. No manufacturer is going to employ DERs that just pencil-whip the paperwork. On the other hand, though, after a long day and after the assurance of some software folks, they might just take their word that things will be okay.
That’s human nature kicking in, and an awful lot of effective management is getting people to work in structures which sometimes run contrary to human nature. Your normal, societal instincts would tell you to take someone you know and trust at their word that something is all right. A proper management system would insist a check is done and verified, ignoring the human relationship between the parties.
So Boeing produced a dynamically unstable airframe, the 737 Max. That is big strike No. 1. Boeing then tried to mask the 737’s dynamic instability with a software system. Big strike No. 2. Finally, the software relied on systems known for their propensity to fail (angle-of-attack indicators) and did not appear to include even rudimentary provisions to cross-check the outputs of the angle-of-attack sensor against other sensors, or even the other angle-of-attack sensor. Big strike No. 3.
None of the above should have passed muster. None of the above should have passed the “OK” pencil of the most junior engineering staff, much less a DER.
That’s not a big strike. That’s a political, social, economic, and technical sin.
I suspect what we’re seeing here is the result of decades of business school managerialism whereby the middle and upper management forget what the company exists to do – return value to shareholders by making planes which don’t crash – and instead believe their raison d’etre is something quite different. As I mentioned in my previous post, Boeing boasts on its corporate webpage that it has more than 40 diversity councils. How many councils does it have checking vital software is properly coded?
I had an interesting discussion with one of my professors yesterday, kicked off by this post on the hippy entrepreneurs who were selling environmentalism. Marketing started off selling products, and then sometime in the 1960s or ’70s switched to selling lifestyles. Now it’s changed again and it’s selling ideology, more often than not political ideology. It’s difficult to see which way the causation runs here, but this change has coincided with major corporations moving from returning value to shareholders by selling goods and services to trying to change mankind. Organisations obsessed with diversity, preaching morality, and endlessly droning on about some utopian future is not a business, it is a semi-religious movement. It’s one thing to say that this is just smart marketing, but are we certain those driving it are, behind the scenes, focusing on delivering a sound product and not wholly caught up in believing their own propaganda campaigns? The people running companies are drawn from the same sections of society and the same schools and universities as the political classes who genuinely believe the ignorant plebs need to be led by the nose to a bright utopian future of diversity, multiculturalism, and earth-worship. At this stage I think it’s rather charitable to think modern corporations are run by hardnosed business people who make a few progressive noises for PR purposes, and not by lunatics steeped in the dogma pumped out by the social science departments of American academia. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone can dispute the direction of travel.
So our capabilities are dropping away. There was a time when Boeing would have known what systems and processes to put in place to ensure a plane is airworthy, and they’d have employed people with the knowledge, skills, and character to implement them. In parallel, the FAA would have employed competent, experienced people who could be trusted to sign off on an aircraft only if it was safe. But Boeing’s priorities changed along with those of the FAA, reordered to place social justice, inclusion, and diversity at the top as they proceed with their mission to remake the world according to their ideology. And now we have planes dropping out of the sky and killing hundreds of people in accidents due to colossal organisational failings from outfits that are preaching to us about morality.
I’m going to start calling these diversity deaths.