Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing by Peter Robison

(New York: Anchor, 2022), 337

This book is quite critical of Boeing as you would expect from the title, and in interesting history of the 737 and a look at the two MAX crashes and the development of MCAS.

One interesting point is how the author so sharply criticizes the profit-focused culture inherited from McDonnell Douglas after the merger, which he paints as a primary factor in the decisions that led to the 737 MAX issues: focus on lowering costs to increase profits, which resulted in aversion to innovation risk (i.e. re-engine the 737 vs clean-sheet), issues with the 737 from having larger engines, and hiding MCAS to smooth certification and reduce re-training costs. Compare this with the cost-conscious engineering culture at SpaceX, which embraces innovation as a means of reducing costs. By the way I'm writing this after the first crewed Starliner flight was scrubbed; hopefully it gets off the ground and into service soon.

Chapter 1: The Incredibles

  • The early history of Boeing

Chapter 2: Mea Culpa

  • History of 737
  • Developed as me-too competitor to Douglas ?? on the cheap
  • Engineering B-team won with moving engines from tail to wings to add more seats
  • Got a kick in demand after deregulation when airlines moved to hub and spoke and needed more short haul

Chapter 3: Jack Welch Look Out

  • "McDonnell Douglas bought Boeing with Boeing's money"

Chapter 4: Hunter Killer Assassins

  • Boeing tried to be like GE, starting a Crotonville look-alike and focusing on return on assets

Chapter 5: "Everybody Thinks They're Different"

  • Hunter-killer assassins (McDonnell bean counters) vs Boy Scouts (Boeing engineers)
  • Choose unit costs over quality
  • Mmove corporate HQ to Chicago to be away from operations

Chapter 6: The Corporate Playbook

  • McNerney
  • The decision to outsource the 787 created issues, dealing with which shelved plans for a clean-sheet 737 replacement

Chapter 7: The Forrest Gumps

  • Switching oversight from the FAA to airlines

Chapter 8: The Countdown Clock

  • Development of MCAS as a software (rather than hardware) fix to the pitch-up tendency in tight turns from the forward mounted wings)
  • MCAS billed as a “tweak of the electronic control system” rather than a new system
  • "Any change must buy its way onto the airplane"
  • Engineers advocated for "synthetic airspeed" (electronically blended from multiple sensors to guide against issues from sensor failures), but was scrapped
  • Testing: "How long do you want to keep polishing that apple?"

Chapter 9: Human Factors

  • Profit incentives in the training division led to replacement of Boeing pilots with contract pilots, hurting the feedback loop to engineering
  • MAX makes first flight. In flight testing they expand MCAS to low speeds which requires just AOA indicator (no accelerometer). The simulator tested what would happen with low speed activation but without the cacophony of alters and stick shaker like a real situation would entail
  • MCAS certification was based on an old version of the software, not the production version

Chapter 10: Crash

  • The Lion Air flight that crashed had the same AOA sensor go out the night before. A check pilot noticed the trim wheel spinning and helped them diagnose a fix and land safely but since they had not purchased an option maintenance did not know to fix the faulty indicator
  • Boeing and insurance attorneys worked to have victim families sign release forms for relatively small payments

Chapter 11: The Death Jet

  • Ethiopian crash: same failure as Lion in 6 minutes
  • Boeing’s unsympathetic response

Chapter 12: Blood Money

  • Boeing returns were “blood money” because they came at the cost of safety. Muilenburg's responses to disclosures of knowledge about MCAS issues

Chapter 13: Go Back to the Farm

  • Muilenburg out after missing end of year 737 return to flight and embarrassing Starliner failure

Chapter 14: The Guy Most Like Jack

  • Calhoun remakes Boeing (but not for long)


  • "By many accounts the cultural reckoning like the one that took place after the Challenger disaster never took place at Boeing and its regulator."
  • $21B direct cost from 737 MAX crashes, plus $30B+ in cancelled orders
  • Paints Jack Welch as the evil money-only inspiration for all of Boeing’s worst leaders

Topic: Boeing


Created: 2024-03-08-Fri
Updated: 2024-05-09-Thu