Boeing 737 MAX Crashes: What Went Wrong?

In October 2018, Lions Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea 12 minutes after taking off from an airport in Jakarta. It killed all 189 people on board. In March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed 6 minutes after takeoff from an airport in Nairobi, Kenya, killing all 157 people on board.

The planes in both instances were Boeing’s newest model, 737 MAX, which was unveiled two years ago.

What is now coming to light is that these new Boeing planes contained a new system, called MCAS, which stands for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System—a system that pilots were not told about nor trained on, nor was MCAS as complex in these new planes.

The Issue with MCAS

Boeing installed the MCAS on the 737 MAX aircraft because of the larger engines used on the plane. These engines are mounted differently than they were mounted in prior 737 planes and created a tendency for the 737 MAX aircraft to tilt upward, which would have made it more likely for the airplane to stall in midair. To protect against the possibility of a midair stall, Boeing changed its flight-control system so that it automatically pushed the nose of the plane down when a bladelike sensor that sticks out of the fuselage indicates that the nose is pitched up and therefore in danger of a stall.

It appears that in both the Lion Air and the Ethiopian Airlines crashes, the Angle of Attack (AOA) sensor was feeding bad data to the plane’s flight computer, which then activated the MCAS, which repeatedly pushed the nose of the plane down, even though there was no danger of a stall.

It was not until the investigation into the Lion Air crash that pilots operating the new 737 MAX aircraft were even aware that there were more than cosmetic changes to the aircraft.

A spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association told news outlets in November 2018 that training on moving from the 737 NG model cockpit to the 737 MAX consisted of a one-hour session on an iPad because the airline doesn’t have simulators specific to the MAX model. The only model-specific training was practicing cross-wind landings, which are trickier in the new MAX because the wingtips have large downward-pointing strakes that might touch the ground in hard cross-winds.

However, the flight-recorder data, or black box from the Ethiopian Airlines crash showed that the MCAS activated to push the nose sharply down three times in succession. The pilots followed the protocol introduced by Boeing in November 2018 after the Lion Air crash, of hitting the cut-off switches, to stop the automatic action, and try to adjust the tail manually.

The report from the black box data goes on to say that 3 minutes into the flight, the pilots found that the manual system for moving the horizontal tail, which is also known as the stabilizer, was not working, meaning they couldn’t move the large stabilizer wheel in the cockpit that is connected to the tail via cables.

According to an article in The Seattle Times, flight-control experts said the reason the pilots could not move the stabilizer was most likely because at that point, the airspeed was higher than the aircraft’s maximum operating speed limit.

Four minutes into the flight, the pilots stopped trying to use the manual stabilizer wheel and switched the electric power to the tail back on, using the thumb switches on the control column to pitch the nose back up.

Boeing Faces Liability in Crashes

In March, the Federal Aviation Agency grounded all 737 MAX aircraft, joining a list of several dozen countries, including the European Union and Canada. This grounding impacted 74 aircraft in the United States.

Last week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg accepted responsibility for both crashes, posting a video on Twitter, before the final report of either crash was completed. Experts say that this admission could expose Boeing to billions in legal liabilities, though some pointed out that Muilenburg’s statement included comments on additional pilot training and education materials, to prevent another accident like this “from ever happening again,” which could be construed as a loophole to allow them to claim in lawsuits that they’re not directly responsible

Boeing’s liability—from product liability for defects in the airplane or its flight control system, to not training pilots on the changes to the system,  to not taking steps to fix the problems after the first crash—are estimated to range anywhere from $1 billion to several billion dollars.

There are complex rules that govern where lawsuits against airlines can be filed, and under an international treaty, damages from airlines for families of victims of crashes on international flights are capped at about $170,000.

Typically, airlines resolve such lawsuits with passengers, then seek compensation from the manufacturer if the crash involved equipment failures and not pilot error.

However, there’s an advantage for foreign passengers to bypass the airline and instead file suit in the United States against the manufacturer because there is not a cap on lawsuits from passengers against an aircraft manufacturer, and U.S.-based courts generally award damages that other countries do not, such as for pain, suffering and loss of income.

Because Boeing’s headquarters are in Chicago, victims can file their lawsuits in Cook County regardless of whether they are U.S. citizens or not. In fact, several lawsuits have already been filed by families or the estates of crash victims in Cook County Circuit Court, though Boeing’s lawyers have used a legal right to move some of those cases to the federal U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago.

More lawsuits are expected.

Expert Aviation Litigators in Chicago

Potential litigants who need of legal counsel with an expertise in aviation law should look no further than Thomas K. Prindable, a partner with Cogan & Power in Chicago. Prindable has more than 25 years’ experience in aviation crash investigation and litigation experience. The firm’s attorneys have nearly 200 years combined legal experience as accident and injury trial lawyers and have been recognized among the top 100 consumer attorneys in Illinois by Leading Lawyers Network and Illinois Super Lawyers.

The firm believes in a collaborative approach to legal representation, so it can draw on its attorney’s extensive and diverse experiences and skills to help clients recover the compensation they deserve.

If you have been impacted by the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 or Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, contact Thomas K. Prindable at (312) 477-2500. There is no obligation, and your consultation is free.