A Modern Classic
Flying|November 2019
The Airplane Boeing Got Just Right.
Sam Weigel

The sad saga of the Boeing 737 Max has been a slow-burning corporate, engineering, regulatory, human-interest and public-relations nightmare for going on six months now—with no end in sight. The magnitude of Boeing’s deadly foul-up is a frequent topic of conversation in airliner cockpits, and considerable ink has been spilled over the subject in both aviation and general media. Now, I’m not an aeronautical engineer, and I have yet to fly the 737, but quite a few of my friends are current or former 737NG pilots at various U.S. and European airlines. The general consensus is that the Max was simply one stretch too many of an airplane that had already been shoehorned into an ever-expanding number of sizes and roles until it barely resembled the well-considered original design.

The bigger story here, I think, is the decline of Boeing’s reputation for engineering excellence since its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas. Since the merger, not one but two new Boeing airliners have been grounded by the FAA, the first such groundings since McDonnell Douglas’ own DC-10 in 1979. The Boeing 787, while a fine design, has suffered many quality-control problems stemming from a complex outsourcing scheme that only an MBA could love, and a union-busting move to South Carolina, bypassing the experienced and costly Seattle workforce. The most serious flaw was a subcontractor’s defective lithium-ion batteries that were prone to thermal runaway and fire, an eventuality that Boeing (and the FAA) failed to predict and mitigate. Luckily, no airplanes crashed, but the type was grounded for several months. The subsequent rushed development of the Max and the half-assed Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that few at Boeing—and even fewer Max pilots—knew about, as well as Boeing’s pathetic dribbled-out response to the two crashes, suggest that Boeing management learned little from the 787 debacle.

Rather than kick Boeing any more while they’re down, I think it might be instructive to take a look at one of the best airplanes built by the “old” Boeing (or indeed, any manufacturer anywhere), an airplane I’ve come to regard with great respect and affection over the past several years of flying it. I’m speaking, of course, of the venerable Boeing 757. For decades, Boeing’s reputation largely rested on four excellent designs: the 747, 757, 767 and 777. Of these, the 757 has enjoyed the longest success without any significant redesign because Boeing engineers got the plane exactly right on the first go. Even today, as the 757 fleet ages, the airlines haven’t been able to find anything to replace it; there’s still no modern design that performs its mission as well as it does, and so it soldiers on in the fleets of all three U.S. legacy carriers and many overseas airlines as well.

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