My Investigation Into the Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 Problem

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RUSH: I’ve done some more look-see investigation into this whole 737 Max 8, Max 9 business, and I now think that I have a real good understanding of what happened here. And the basics are these. The competitor for Boeing and the 737 series is A20, the Airbus A20. And back in 2011 the 737 was getting long in the tooth, they needed to modernize it, make it more fuel efficient, new engines. And the debate was, “Okay, do we reengine the airplane or do we reengineer the entire plane?”

Well, Airbus decided just to put new engines on their planes thereby not spending much at all to upgrade them. They just put new engines on them and made whatever retrofits on them to handle the increased power, but they didn’t redesign a new airplane, any of that.

Boeing couldn’t do that with the 737. If they’re gonna add bigger engines, they had to change the design of the airplane, and they tried to do this as cost efficiently as possible. Trump was right in a way. I mean, these airplanes have gotten very complex in pursuit of economy, in pursuit of having them as cheaply as possible to use and to fly.

And it’s exactly what I thought. Because of the redesign of the airplane and the change in center of gravity brought about by the bigger engines — the nose gear’s eight inches longer, for example — it has changed the entire angle of attack that the airplane takes in normal flight. If you’ve ever paid any attention to flying, you feel like sometimes on certain airplanes you’re always climbing even though you’re at cruising level. That’s the angle of attack, the nose and the wings as they fly through the air. This airplane’s angle of attack was made much steeper because these new engines are incredible. They have their own aerodynamic lift in addition to that which they get from the wings and the tail.

And because of that rapid elevation of the nose promoting stalls or making the airplane think it’s in a stall, they put in a computer system that automatically trimmed some of the lift back on the tail, elevators on the tail to keep the nose lowered. And if something went wrong with that system, the nose after takeoff would be up and down and up and down and none of this was explained in the flight manual.

So the pilots were not aware of what was going on. This is what they think happened in the Lion Air crash, and they’re pretty sure it’s what happened with Ethiopia, although it’s still unknown. So you have to disconnect the autopilot and the computer programming that takes the airplane off the runway and into flight.

And it really is gonna be nothing more than a simple software fix, but the whole thing happened because of competition with Airbus, at least the best anybody can tell, that Boeing had to hurry and they couldn’t just add new engines to the existing 737. They had to basically design a new airplane and build a new airplane. It’s obviously much more complicated than that, but that’s the root of this.

All this dates back to 2011. This is eight years old, this whole process. There are 5,000 of these 737 Max 8s and Max 9s on order. It is the future of Boeing, so they have to get this fixed. And they will.

BREAK TRANSCRIPT

RUSH:  I got a bunch emails during the break that I checked asking me to explain further (and not so hurriedly) what I was saying about the Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9.  All right.  But, folks, it gets kind of technical here, and I have to also specify that I’m not an aeronautical engineer; so I’m only gonna share with you that which I have learned on my own consulting various authorities, experts and so forth.  It all starts, apparently, back in 2011 when Airbus, the A320, decides that they’re gonna modernize by simply putting new engines on the A320, which is a much cheaper upgrade than having to redesign the entire airplane.

If you can put more powerful engines, if you retrofit engines on an existing airplane without having to redesign it in any way, then you are way ahead of the cost competition game with your competitors.  And Airbus is a consortium of the French and the U.K. with governments involved subsidizing the manufacture of these airplanes versus American private sector aircraft manufacturers — in this case, Boeing.  So the 737 was a cash cow for Boeing.  The Boeing 737 and its success is what allowed Boeing to develop the 777 and the 787 Dreamliner.

They’re selling the Dreamliner, the 787, for more than it costs to make it. But they’re still running a $23 billion manufacturing deficit on the 787.  So the 737… Once Airbus decides to put new engines on the A320, they’re gonna become cheaper to operate.  That’s the whole point of putting new engines on.  New engine technology always includes more efficiency — more power for less operating cost — and if Airbus had found a way to put new engines on without having to rebuild the wings and without having to change the center of gravity of the existing A320, then that gave them a leg up on Boeing in selling aircraft to airlines.

So Boeing needed to keep up with this, and they rejected the idea of simply putting bigger engines on the existing 737.  It was pretty much maxed out design-wise.  All airplane development is a series of compromises.  When you have something that weighs as much as an airplane does, to develop the power and the aerodynamics to get it off the ground and fly at a competitive commercial speed of 450 to 550 knots loaded with passengers so that you can make money doing so, you have to make a whole series of compromises for that to happen.

Because devices that weigh that much need all kinds of propulsion in order to fly.  So the compromises that are made… And then you start requiring increasing innovation in the engines for fuel efficiency and all of that.  And as it was described in one article, Boeing had to find a way — with the 737 Max 8 — to fit 12 gallons into a 10-gallon jug, if you can visualize this.  The bigger engines that they designed required a different airplane.  It really isn’t a Boeing 737.  They call it a 737; it’s got the basic overall shape, but it isn’t.

It’s got entirely new flight characteristics because of these new engines and the changed center of gravity.  The nose gear, for example, is eight inches longer. You’ve noticed 737s. They’re really low to the ground, and the engines on a 737 at the bottom are flat because they’re so close to the ground.  Well, you can’t put a bigger engine on that airplane.  You have to change the design. So you need to have it higher off the ground with longer nose gear.  Not main gear.

Just the longer nose gear, which has to do with the perceived angle of attack as the airplane is taking off — which is the key to all this, if you strip it all down.  They changed some of the aerodynamics of the tail cone.  They added some new winglets and fly-by-wire spoilers and they put gigantic new big displays in the cockpit for Millennial-age pilots, who love screens.  So the 737 Max ends up with a nose pointed higher in the air to begin with, and it has larger engines.  And the design of engines is such now that they create lift on their own, of course, with their aerodynamic thrust, in addition to the lift created aerodynamically over the wings.

So that makes the airplane nudge even higher. The nose nudges even higher in terms of angle of attack flying through the air.  Now, Boeing discovered through analysis and flight testing that under certain high-speed conditions both in wind-up turns and wings-level flight, that upward nudge of the nose created a greater risk of stalling.  Stalling is when you don’t have power to maintain your level of ascent.  So the natural way to correct for a stall is to drop the nose and ram the throttles forward full-fledged power.  You have to have enough altitude to do that.

Well, since this airplane’s design naturally raised the profile of the nose and created a higher angle of attack, they had to have a computer solution to lower the nose in both takeoff and cruise flight.  That solution was called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System.  It was a computer program that was also used and adapted to the existing 737 and the 737 Max.  What it did was automatically trim the horizontal stabilizer to bring the nose down.  It just barely elevated the trim tabs on the stabilizer to lower the nose to compensate for the angle of attack.

The computer program was supposed to do that independent — it’s part of the autopilot system — and the pilots just trust that that was happening.  But, for it to work, the angle-of-attack data that is fed into the computer has to work in concert with the MCAS, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that’s handling the trim tabs on the horizontal stabilizer.  If they’re not in sync, then the airplane is gonna compensate by lowering the nose and raising the nose and lowering it and raising it. This apparently was happening in Lion Air and the pilots were having trouble disconnecting the MCAS system in the autopilot.

And eventually I think what happened was the airplane — because of the way all this was designed — lowered the noses full throttle right into the ground, and the pilots were unable to get control of it.  So the fix for this… And none of this was explained.  Apparently, the pilots are upset ’cause none of this was explained in the flight manual for the 737 Max 8.  Look, I love Boeing.  I’ve had a tour of their manufacturing plant out in Renton, Washington, where they were making 747s.  I was blown away by it.

One of the things I most wanted to see was: How do you make an airplane? What’s the first thing you do if you’re gonna build a gigantic airliner like this? So they let me take a tour. They guided me through it, like three hours.  But what they attempted to do here was convince people the 737 Max 8 was a 737, so that it wasn’t gonna need a bunch of new training, and it wasn’t gonna need new adaptations.  If you knew how to fly a 737, if you knew how to handle behaviors of the aircraft — the 737 — you’d do the same thing with the 737 Max 8.

It’s apparently not the case.  So the fix for this is gonna be a relatively simple software update.  But then they’re gonna have to flight test this to the satisfaction of the FAA.  They’ve got 5,000 of these airplanes on order.  There aren’t that many in service in the United States relative to how many have been ordered.  Their future is wrapped up in this airplane.  It is the best-selling plane. The 737 Max 8 and Max 9 are the best-selling airplanes Boeing has ever made in the commercial airline inventory, and I hope they get it right, ’cause aside from this, it is a fantastic airplane.

A number of pilots, by the way, have advocated for not grounding it, for not banning it, that it’s perfectly fine.  They don’t know what all this is about.  Other pilots have said, “Well, you need to upgrade the flight manual because there’s stuff happening here that the manual does not tell us what to do with.”  So there’s conflict.  But it’s all rooted in trying to keep up with… You put increased complexity in these gigantic manufactured airplanes. You put in increased complexity all for the purposes of flying them as cheaply as possible, all for the purposes of economics — and you reach a point where the complexity may end up harming the pursuit of the most efficient manner of flying a loaded airplane at a profitable speed.

Anyway, they’ll get it fixed at some point.

It’s then gonna be a matter of convincing everybody to trust that it has been rectified.

But they’ll get it.

BREAK TRANSCRIPT

RUSH: I’ll tell you how I got interested in all this. Back in 1989, 1990, I was flying on an American Airlines 767, and I was seated next to an off-duty pilot who was being ferried out to the West Coast to make a flight. His base was New York, and they were dispatching him. I had a long talk with him. And my question to him — and this is 1990, this is 30 years ago. Well, 28 years. “Why is it that with all the technological advances we’re making throughout our lives, why is it we cannot fly any faster commercially than 550 or 600 miles an hour?”

And that’s when he gave me the flight is a series of compromises speech. He said, “If you want to fly supersonic, we can do it, but nobody’s gonna pay for it. Do you realize how much fuel it takes to fly supersonic?” He gave me the aerodynamics. The faster you go through the air, the greater resistance the air is, the more power you need, the more power you’re using.

And he said, “Look, we could manufacture airplanes to get you to London in three hours, we’ve done it, the Concorde, but nobody can afford to fly it.” And he said, “We can barely fuel the Concorde. It doesn’t have any reserves. It’s got to land when it has to land. It can’t go into a holding pattern very long and people just aren’t gonna pay for it. But we’ve got the technology to do it. It’s just not sensible cost-wise in a mass market situation.”

And that’s true. So now the entire pursuit of commercial aircraft is forever cheaper to operate engines. The margins are so small and so tiny and the competition is so intense that people are only gonna pay what they’re gonna pay to fly commercially. First class, business, coach, whatever, they’re only gonna pay what they’re gonna pay. And so everything has been pared down to make sure that people can get from point A to point B at a price they’re willing to pay as efficiently as possible for the airline so they can stay in business.

And if some airline comes up with a brand-new way of really having a brand-new cost efficient engine on an existing airplane without having to redesign it, they have a leg up on their competitors that you can’t believe. And this is what Boeing faced.

So they tried to combine the existing airframe of the 737, modifying it to handle the new bigger engines they were gonna put on it, and it changed the characteristics, the aerodynamics of the airplane enough that it doesn’t fly like a standard, ordinary issue 737.

Anyway, Doug in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Great to have you on the EIB Network, sir. Hello.

CALLER: Hello, Rush. I’d say dittos on almost everything you ever say, and today I say double dittos. I don’t know where you get your info, but you’re spot on.

RUSH: I appreciate hearing that, because I’m not an expert in this, but I’ve tried to inform myself as best I can, so I’m glad to get your endorsement.

CALLER: Well, you’re well informed. I would say one of the problems was the design on the Max — and I’ve gotta preface first. I’ve never flown a 7-3. I flew the 7-2, 7-5, 7-6, and triple 7. And about 20,000 hours. And I will say that they were trying to make the common type rating because that makes it cheaper for the airline. So if an airline flies a version of a 300, a 500, a 6, 7, 8, and 9 of the 7-3, the common type rating, all you have to do is get differences training. So they do the same type rating ride by the FAA and then you take a little test for the differences between the airplanes.

Now, for example, I flew the triple seven about 12 years and we had two versions of it, 200ER and LR. Different engines. Pretty much the same systems, but they handle a little bit differently. You could take off with an LR from Johannesburg to Atlanta about 750,000 pounds with a two-engine airplane. Your nose is still way on up there ’cause you’re climbing out at about 5,000 foot per minute. Now, in the ER, the same one, you can only fly that at about 600, which is under the gross weight.

RUSH: Wait, wait. Is the LR longer range than the extended range?

CALLER: Yeah. It will do about 8,000 miles point A to point B with reserves.

RUSH: Right.

CALLER: Longest commercial aircraft there is other than, say, a Gulfstream 650ER. That will do the same mileage or greater. But, as far as commercial passenger aircraft, the triple seven LR is the longest range airplane currently flying. Now, the Airbus 350 tried to compete with it, but personally if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going.

RUSH: Right, but back to your original point because time is limited. The idea of the manufacturer is to build airplanes that have similar type ratings so that if you fly one you can fly the other with just a few hours in a simulator. You don’t have to relearn how to fly every new airplane that’s made.

CALLER: That’s correct. Spot-on. Exactly. It’s cost of training.

RUSH: And with the 737 Max, they had to hurry things along, and it is a different experience, it does have a different rating, but they weren’t quite up front enough about that. Right?

CALLER: That’s correct. And you also have to look at who’s flying those airplanes. The latest one that went down, I feel bad for everything, but you have to also look at the training and the experience of the pilots flying.

RUSH: Well, I tell you what. If these two crashes, if those two airplanes had been a Southwest Airlines or an American Airlines jet, if either one of those, that airplane would have been grounded that day. But since it was Ethiopian and Lion Air, there was a little bit of a — and that’s just a difference in the perceived quality experience of various nations and their airline system. I gotta run.

BREAK TRANSCRIPT

RUSH:  The system that I described — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — is designed to compensate for the increased angle of attack, the elevation of the nose as the airplane takes off and is flying through the air.  That’s the angle of the attack, and the higher the angle of attack, the greater — even though it’s remote, but the greater — the risk of a stall or that the airplane’s computer can think it’s in a stall.

You don’t want that.  You don’t want to be in a stall. You don’t want the aircraft’s computer to think.  So they put this system in to compensate for the higher angle of attack called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, and that is a computer program that automatically trims the horizontal stabilizer to bring the nose down.  So you’ve got two things working against each other here which should not happen.  You shouldn’t need to have something on an airplane that… A pilot would probably call this a “jury-rig.”

So they set up this MCAS, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, to keep the nose down using the rear stabilizer to compensate for the higher angle of attack brought about by the redesign necessary for the new engines.  So a pilot would probably tell you that any time you require a jury-rig like this to fly airplane, that it’s a red flag.  It shouldn’t be necessary.  It’s something that you shouldn’t need a computer. Now, if you’re flying something like the stealth bomber which has no elevators — the B-2, which is just a flying wing — that thing can’t fly without a computer flying it.

A human being cannot keep the B-2 in the air because there’s no vertical elevator.  That thing is a flying wing, and the computer is making precise, infinitesimally microscopic changes in the flight control systems to keep that airplane from spiraling down and crashing, because there’s no way it flies without a computer being able to do it. On a commercial aircraft, you shouldn’t have to need things like that.  That’s why you have pilots.  Pilots can be able to manually run the trim on the rear stabilizer and compensate.

But the more you put this up to a computer… We all know computer glitches, and if there’s a disagreement in the sensors in the cockpit that are calculating the angle of attack — if there’s any kind of a disparity or disagreement between that and the MCAS system — then you should ground the airplane.  You shouldn’t take it off if there’s a massive disparity in agreement between the sensors and the MCAS system.  So I just wanted to wrap that up because most pilots would probably call this a jury-rig.

I’m putting words in their mouths, but it shouldn’t require that.

BREAK TRANSCRIPT

RUSH: Okay.  Here’s Stewart, West Hartford, Connecticut.  Somebody still lives in Connecticut.  Great to have you on the program, sir.  Hi.

CALLER:  Hi, Rush.  I’m an 81-year-old retired Pratt & Whitney engineer, and I just wanted to give you a little update on the difference in the engines.  I don’t want to talk about the incidents.  This is basically trying to educate the listeners and yourself.  Most commercial engines are twin-spool engines.  There’s really no difference between a GE engine or a Pratt & Whitney engine in performance.

However, many years ago Pratt & Whitney discovered a way of changing the performance of an engine by incorporating what they call a geared turbine in the engine itself.  GE elected not to do that, and it continued on its path of engines.  Pratt worked feverishly for 20 years developing this concept.  It came about recently, and they sold it to Airbus.  The benefit of that is the performance of that is phenomenal.  The fuel burn is unbelievable.  The other engine by GE, under CFM, is the same old kind of engine.  They tried to sell the —

RUSH:  Now, wait a minute.  Some people… The CFM is what’s on the 738 Max.  Is that what you’re saying?

CALLER: Correct.  Right.

RUSH:  Just wanted to stipulate that.  I knew that, but I wanted to make sure everybody else knew.

CALLER: (chuckling) Right.  I’m a little nervous here.

RUSH:  Well, you don’t sound nervous.  My God, you’re 81.  You’ve seen everything.  There’s no way you can be nervous.

CALLER: (laughing) That’s true.  But I’ve been a follower of you all these years, and it’s an honor to talk to you.

RUSH:  I appreciate that.  I really do.  So the bottom line is Airbus has a distinct advantage with that engine —

CALLER:  Correct.

RUSH: — in terms of fuel efficiency and economy?

CALLER:  Absolutely, and emissions.  There’s low emissions.  It is so quiet that you can almost be standing next to it and you don’t hear it.  I know I’m exaggerating some of these things, but if people would look into it — and it’s their latest and greatest engine.  They were shocked.  They were so shocked — I’m talking about CFM — that they didn’t know what to do.

RUSH:  Right, and this was Boeing’s trying to keep up with this.

CALLER:  Correct.  So they’ve been tweaking and tweaking and tweaking — and it’s very hard to tweak these engines to get more and more out of it.  The one that’s Pratt & Whitney — called the GTF, Geared Turbofan — is totally in a different class by itself.  All I’m saying is, because of that, whatever changes they had to make to the airplanes on the Max is a result of not being to have an engine like the Pratt engine which would have been a smaller engine and there probably would have been no changes to the body or anything.

RUSH:  Right.  But since they couldn’t do that, they had to make modifications in the body, meaning the design of the airplane.  If you get right down to it, it’s not a 737.  It looks like a larger 737, but engineering-wise it’s a different airplane. Look, I really don’t want to come down on Boeing here.  They may deserve it for certain things, but they’re such a great company, and they’re gonna rebound from this.  But they just… The previous caller talked about it.

In your whole fleet… Like, Boeing has the 7… Well, the don’t have the ’27 no longer. The ’37, the ’47, and all the different series, the ’57, ’67, the 777, 787. They try to make the flight experience for the pilots similar enough that it’s not a major deal to get pilots type rated in each different upper.  And for manufacturing purposes, you want to be able to have at least some consistency from model to model to model just for the cost of it.

And they tried. They went a little bit too far in the 737 Max 8 and Max 9.  There’s a Max 9 out there flying around too.  Anyway…  But it was the competition with Airbus.  Airbus, all they had to do was put these new engines on their existing airplanes.  Boeing could not do that.  They couldn’t put new engines on an existing 737.  They needed a bigger plane to be able to compete.  I appreciate the call, Stewart, and I’m glad you waited.  I appreciate your patience as well.

BREAK TRANSCRIPT

RUSH: Hey, I got a quick airplane question for you, folks. When you’re in an airliner taking off/landing when you’re flying, do you want to hear the sounds? Do you want to hear the engines rev up for takeoff? Do you want to know you’re taking off by virtue of what you’re hearing? Do you want to be able to hear the flaps being lowered, do you want to hear the landing gear going up and down, do you want to be able to hear when descent happens — feel its slowdown, the rush of air in descent and the nose dropping?

Do you want to know all that when you’re flying? (interruption) Airbus designs its airplanes to limit as much of that noise as possible. It’s just a competitive thing, especially the A380, that gigantic two-story thing? You cannot… If you’re inside most planes, you cannot tell when the engines are revved. The only sense that you have that you’re taking off is you have a sense of a higher speed. But the sounds associated with the airplane and flight you don’t hear. That’s how quiet they’ve made the cabin and the engines.

It’s kind of unnerving for some people. (interruption) Not… (interruption) Well, no, no, no. They can’t change turbulence. Just you don’t hear the engine. You’re rolling down for takeoff, but you don’t know it because you don’t hear the engine. The only way you can know it is the sense of speed. Some people, this makes ’em nervous. They want to hear the evidence that everything’s working! Other people love the quiet.

When you’re on a boat… Like, let’s say you’re on a Bill Kristol cruise. The only noise you can hear is those Never Trumper flap-gummer lecturers. You don’t hear the engine on a big cruise ship, do you? You do not. For a whole host of reasons, you don’t. You just have a sense you’re plowing through the waves there. You can see it, but if you’re in your cabin… You know, you feel the roll of the waves. You don’t hear the chop.

But you never hear the engine of a cruise ship. Most airplanes you can’t avoid it. Now, Boeing wants customers to hear. They want customers to have the comfort that the systems are working. The reason I ask is this is a factor in the new engines that they put on the A320 that Boeing was trying to compete with the 737 Max. The competition… Capitalist competition, I have to say, folks, it is just vicious out there, and most people are not taught to respect it. They’re taught to hate it so. But it’s fascinating stuff to me.

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