Ghost at the Controls
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 22 - 29, 2021
Boeing insisted pilots didn’t need expensive training for the new 737 Max and wouldn’t have trouble diagnosing software errors midflight. Then Maxes started pointing themselves toward the Earth. Adapted from the new book Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing, by Peter Robison
Peter Robison

As passengers filed in behind them and stowed their bags that morning in Jakarta in October 2018, the Lion Air pilots completed their preflight checks amid the modern comforts of the Boeing 737 Max 8. Compared to the earlier 737, which both had flown extensively, the cabin was blissfully quiet, even during the five minutes it took for each of the big new engines to warm up. The pilots’ seats were cushier. Four large color screens arrayed in front of them made altitude and speed readouts easier to see—nothing like the old analog dials that Boeing designers once called the “steam gauges.”

Bhavye Suneja, the captain, told his copilot, who went by the single name Harvino, that he was feeling ill, but in better health he was a sunny, life-of-the-party kind of guy. Suneja was passionate about machines; after this run he planned to fly home to New Delhi, then drive through the highlands near Nepal the next week with his wife of two years, Garima Sethi. Airlines were a family affair for the Sunejas. His mother was a manager at Air India Ltd., and his younger sister aspired to become a pilot. After flight school in California, Suneja had joined Lion Air in 2011, the same year the airline placed what was then the biggest single order in Boeing Co.’s history, a $22 billion Max purchase that co-founder Rusdi Kirana sealed with a handshake from U.S. President Barack Obama.

At the Jakarta airport that morning, Paul Ayorbaba, 43, sent his family a choppy WhatsApp video of his walk down the jetway and onto the Lion Air Max jet, painted a cheery orange and white. In the minutes before the door closed, 22-year-old Deryl Fida Febrianto, a newlywed of two weeks, texted a selfie to his bride as he departed for a job on a cruise ship. Wahyu Aldilla sat with his son, Xherdan Fahrezi, with whom he’d gone to Jakarta for a soccer match.

It was 6:20 a.m. when Lion Air 610 left the runway for a short hop to an island off Sumatra. Neither Suneja nor Harvino knew that a tiny sensor on the left side of the plane called an angle-of-attack vane had a 21-degree misalignment in its delicate innards—an oversight by the mechanics who had inspected it. The nose gear had barely left the ground when Suneja’s control column began shaking, the cue for a potential stall. Alerts signaling faulty altitude and airspeed readings blinked on. Flight data recorders don’t pick up the expressions on pilots’ faces, or the stab in their spines when they sense their machine might kill them.

L ion Air’s short history had included its share of turbulence, but on balance it was one of remarkable ascent. The company’s charismatic co-founder, Kirana, had started out as a distributor of Brother typewriters before opening a travel agency in Jakarta with his brother in the 1990s. In the early days, he would hold up a name board at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport to pick up arriving passengers. Kirana and his brother eventually cobbled together $900,000 and leased an old 737-200 as well as a woeful Soviet-made competitor, the Yakovlev Yak-42. Lion Air began flying in 2000.

By 2015, with Asia’s powerhouse economies producing newly mobile middle-class travelers, Kirana was a billionaire. His airline controlled half the domestic market in Indonesia, a nation of 250 million people living on 17,000 islands stretching 3,000 miles from east to west. At Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, the buzz-cut Iowa native who became chief executive officer that year, saw untapped markets like Indonesia and talked about how the aerospace industry had reached some kind of cycle-busting new normal.

Boeing had been a giant of American aviation for a century, but a financial reinvention under Muilenburg turned it into something else—a Wall Street darling. In 2017 it had reported a 67% jump in earnings, to $8.2 billion. Boeing’s share price had almost tripled during Muilenburg’s short tenure, reaching more than $386, and his chief financial officer, Greg Smith, told people in one meeting that it could top $800 or $900 if the company kept doing what had made shareholders happy: raising the dividend, buying back shares, and keeping expenses low.

That’s precisely what some people at Boeing feared, according to hundreds of hours of interviews with current and former employees for the book from which this article is adapted, Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing. Among themselves, they complained about how a company that had once been ruled by engineers who thumbed their noses at Wall Street now celebrated managers for cost-cutting, co-opted regulators, and pressured suppliers with relentless, Walmart-style tactics to cut their prices.

The Max, first delivered in 2017, fit right into this mindset. In emails later handed over to congressional investigators, a Boeing pilot boasted of using “Jedi mind tricks” to convince airlines and regulators there was no need for pilots who’d flown the previous version of the 737 (like Suneja and Harvino) to undergo expensive simulator training on the Max. For airlines, training is a big part of labor costs. Minimizing the expense gave Boeing’s customers one less reason to defect to its European rival, Airbus SE.

Other evidence showed that Boeing pushed for cost reductions in testing and ignored engineers’ entreaties for more sophisticated flight controls. An employee despairing of foulups wrote, “This airplane is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.” The company even turned down a request from Lion Air itself for additional training. “Idiots,” a Boeing pilot grumbled to a colleague about Lion Air.

As the control column shook violently, Harvino, the copilot, asked the captain if he planned to turn the plane around. Suneja, his voice strong despite his illness, told Harvino to get clearance to a holding point to buy some time. “Flight control problem,” Harvino radioed. As Suneja steered toward the new heading, the nose mysteriously dipped. He squeezed a thumb switch on the control column to push it back up. It did, but then the nose dipped again. For eight minutes, the tug of war continued. The blue expanse of Jakarta Bay filled the windows.

Harvino flipped through Boeing’s 737 Quick Reference Handbook, searching pages of emergency checklists for an answer. Airspeed Unreliable. Dual Bleed. Pack Trip Off. Wing-Body Overheat. Nothing seemed to explain the ghost fighting them for control of the plane. Twenty-one times, Suneja pressed the switch to keep the nose pointing up. The plane was cleared for 27,000 feet but had reached less than 6,000. The passengers felt every sickening undulation in their stomachs. Harvino finally got on the phone to ask a flight attendant to come into the cockpit. “Yes, sir,” she answered, replacing the phone with a ca-chunk (audible on the cockpit voice recorder) and opening the door. The captain asked her to send in a Lion Air engineer, who happened to be aboard, to help figure out the problem. The chimes of the intercom sounded as she called him forward.

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