Book of the week: Flying Blind by Peter Robison

The Bloomberg journalist investigates the tragic failure of Boeing’s 737 Max plane

Lion Air aircraft
Lion Air aircraft on the first anniversary of the Lion Air flight JT-610 crash on 27 October 2019 in Tanggerang, Indonesia
(Image credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

In October 2018, a Lion Air flight in Indonesia plummeted into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board. Five months later, an Ethiopian Airlines flight ploughed into the ground outside Addis Ababa, killing 157.

There were striking similarities between the two crashes, said Roger Lowenstein in The Wall Street Journal. In both cases, the plane’s nose suddenly started dipping, causing the pilot to lose control. And each involved Boeing’s new 737 Max, the company’s “upgrade to its venerable 737”.

In Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing, the Bloomberg journalist Peter Robison explains how Boeing brought an unsafe plane to market. The story he tells – of a company once renowned for its engineering excellence becoming in thrall to cost-cutting and short-term profits – is at once riveting and “disturbing”.

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The origins of the two crashes lay in Boeing’s “bitter battle” with Airbus for dominance of the short-haul market, said Michael Skapinker in the FT. For decades, the 737 had “kept the world aloft”, but by the 2010s the European manufacturer’s A320 was “seen by many airlines as superior”.

Since developing a complete replacement for the 737 would have cost an estimated $20bn, Boeing opted instead to retrofit its existing 737s with “bigger, more fuel-efficient engines” – a process that cost $2.5bn. But because the old plane’s wings were so low-slung, the engines had to be mounted in a forward position – which meant the plane had a tendency to tilt upwards in flight. To prevent this, Boeing installed a sensor-activated software system called MCAS, which would automatically “force the aircraft’s nose down”.

That might have been fine had pilots known how to respond when MCAS kicked in, said John Arlidge in The Sunday Times. But fearing that “expensive and disruptive” simulator training would put off airlines buying the 737 Max, Boeing persuaded regulators that “MCAS was not important enough to require new simulator training”. In the plane’s manual, the software was barely mentioned. The Lion Air pilots had no idea why the nose kept dipping.

Robison exposes the arrogance of Boeing’s top brass, who failed to act even when their employees raised doubts about the Max’s safety, said David Gelles in The New York Times. And he castigates the Federal Aviation Administration for effectively doing the manufacturer’s bidding. This is an “authoritative, gripping and finely detailed narrative that charts the decline of one of the great American companies”.

Penguin Business 336pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

Flying Blind book cover

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