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ATW Editor's Blog

Mr. Muilenburg: please let the investigation teams determine the MAX crash causes


A golden rule of good industry journalism when the publication you work for covers the air transport business is that you never pre-judge the cause of an airliner crash. It is, I believe, something that holds true across the professional air transport industry: Let the investigation take its course and professionals determine the real cause.

It is a rule I have personally abided by in some 30 years of aviation and aerospace journalism and to which our team of editors adhere.

That’s not always easy in the modern world of social media, demands for instant answers, and popular journalism. When there is a high-profile crash, TV and radio media outlets look to industry publications like ATW and Aviation Week wanting our editors to state how the crash happened and why. We facilitate where we can, but always on the understanding that we will not comment on crash causes while an investigation is ongoing.

I say this here because I feel compelled to say that the person who has broken this rule today is not one of our editorial team, but the head of Boeing. Talking to reporters after the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Chicago April 29, Boeing chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg said of the second crash, of an Ethiopian Airlines MAX, “in this case, as in most cases, there are a chain of events that occurred.”

What he was trying to do was defend the safety of the MAX and, in particular, the MCAS system that Boeing designed into the new version of the 737 because in Muilenburg’s words, it would make the aircraft handle in a way “desired in the hands of pilots.”

Couple those two statements together and Muilenburg is saying that other factors caused the two MAX crashes and, by implication, there was pilot error.

I’m not a pilot or an aeronautical engineer. Hands up, I don’t understand why something that was specifically designed into a modern airliner, and which is apparently critical to the safety of the aircraft, should end up being so easily subject to going into an erroneous state that puts the aircraft into a disastrously unstable state that certified pilots cannot recognize or rectify.

Hopefully, and as is usually the case in this industry, the professional investigations will ultimately determine what led to these two fatal crashes, what went wrong, and whether there were common factors.

And while Boeing, as the manufacturer of both aircraft, has a privileged insight into those crash investigations as they progress, I would prefer the company holds back on pre-empting the cause conclusions. That’s a basic rule that has stood this industry well. And it’s also the right thing to do by Boeing’s airline customers and the families of those who died.

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com

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