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As Boeing Inches Toward 737 MAX Recertification, 787 and Lunar Lander Go Sour, Charleston v. Seattle Looms

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As Boeing Inches Toward 737 MAX Recertification, 787 and Lunar Lander Go Sour, Charleston v. Seattle Looms

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By Lamberg Strether

With such a ginormous news flow, we haven’t consolidated all the bad news about Boeing for you, dear reader. Hence this round-up. There are four ongoing Boeing stories — I think I should say horror stories — to consider: The 737 MAX recertification process (with accompanying post mortem), two separate 787 manufacturing breakdowns, two separate investigations into Boeing’s Federal contracts for a Lunar Lander, and the corporate decision whether to consolidate production in Seattle, WA or Charleston, SC, forced by the collapse of demand under COVID. Any one would be challenging for a company with a functional corporate culture and good management. Unfortunately for us all, and especially the workers, we’re talking about Boeing. Let’s take each story in turn, starting with the 737.

The 737 MAX Recertification

The 737, once Boeing’s cash cow, has been grounded since March 2019. There are still a number of steps to go before it can fly again (presumably in the fourth quarter after regulatory approvals are complete). From Travel Weekly, “Boeing 737 Max moves closer to return“:

There remain a series of steps to complete before the FAA can rescind the grounding order and aircraft re-enter service.

These include a review of Boeing’s design documentation, a technical advisory board review and report, an FAA ‘determination of compliance’ review, a notice of pending safety actions and a final directive on the issues for the grounding and advice to airlines.

Currently, Boeing’s proposal for training flight crews is under review at Gatwick. From CNBC, “FAA to begin key Boeing 737 Max training review on Monday in London“:

A training review for the grounded Boeing 737 Max will begin on Monday in London, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said, in a key milestone for the plane’s eventual return to service.

The FAA said the Joint Operations Evaluation Board for the Boeing 737 Max will take place at London Gatwick Airport and meet for approximately nine days “to review Boeing’s proposed training for 737 Max flight crews” and will include civil aviation authorities and airline flight crews from the United States, Canada, Brazil and the European Union.

‘After the nine-day review, the results will be incorporated into the draft FAA Flight Standardization Board report, which will then be open for public comment.

Then, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson will undergo recommended training and conduct an evaluation flight at the controls of a Boeing 737 Max. He will share observations with FAA technical staff.

I think it’s pretty terrific that Dickson’s going to fly the Max personally. I suppose you could say it’s a stunt, but it’s also skin in the game. (I’ve recommended a similar procedure for Federal electeds and political appointees for a Covid vaccine, should one eventuate).

Meanwhile, the 737 MAX crash post mortem grinds on, making everybody responsible for the debacle look very bad. From the Seattle Times, “Boeing 737 MAX program leaders who approved flight control system say they didn’t know key details“:

In testimony to congressional investigators probing the fatal crashes of two 737 MAX jets,Michael Teal, the chief engineer on Boeing’s 737 MAX program who signed off on the jet’s technical configuration, said he was unaware of crucial technical details of the flight control system that triggered inadvertently and caused the crashes.

He was also unaware that the system could activate repeatedly, as it did in the crash flights, relentlessly pushing down the noses of the jets each time the pilots pulled them up.

“I had no knowledge that MCAS had a repeat function in it during the development,” Teal told investigators. “The technical leaders well below my level would have gone into that level of detail.”

Likewise, only “when it showed up in the press” later, did Teal learn that a warning light that was supposed to tell pilots if two angle of attack sensors disagreed wasn’t working on most MAXs, including the two that crashed — even though Boeing engineers had discovered this glitch in August 2017, more than a year before the first accident.

And Teal, who said he “signed off on the configuration of the airplane to include the MCAS function,” couldn’t recall any discussion of the decision to remove all mention of MCAS from the pilot flight manuals.

Dude, you’re the chief engineer, not some pencil-necked MBA. You’re supposed to know this stuff. (Note also the phrase “technical leaders,” “leader” being one of my crotchets. “Leader” doesn’t give any indication of function, and the effect is to erase accountability.)

So that’s where we are with the 737, a debacle that’s bad enough. We now turn to the 787, whose woes — if you are really suspicious-minded and inclined to mistrust Boeing management — could give rise to the suspicion that Boeing doesn’t care about manufacturing quality carbon fibre aircraft. (At one point, back during the 787 battery fire episode, I riffed a few times on “Boeing’s union-busting plastic plane,” and got some justified pushback from readers that carbon fibre wasn’t plastic, and was a proven techology. But I think that riff is looking pretty good now!)

787 Manufacturing Woes

Over the past few months, there have been 787 manufacturing problems with mating body sections (8 aircraft), the vertical tail fin (680 aircraft), and the horizontal stabilizer (900 aircraft); the issues appeared in the press in that order, so that’s how I’m going to write it up. Nobody has presented a single master theory of flaws in Boeing’s manfacturing process, but all the issues seem to have to do with “shims,” which I’ll explain as I go along. In the first issue (body sections), I’ll look at quality assurance. For the second issue (the vertical tail fin), I’ll look at the actual manufacturing practice used on the the shop floor. The third issue (the stabilizer) seems to have the same causes as the first two. Since (as of this writing) 981 787 ScreamDreamliners have been built, these defects affect a substantial portion of the fleet: 70% (for tail fins) and 92% (stabilizers). Note that Boeing had shim problems with the 787 back in 2012, so this is not a first. Not a good look!

8 aircraft: body shim and skin-flatness issues. This was the 787 manufacturing issue to come to light in the press (and one might speculate that it did so because it both involves fewer planes, and is more complex to explain, since it involves an interaction between two components, both of which must be defective if there is to be a problem). From Crain’s Chicago Business Review, “Another Boeing 787 slowdown that puts fleet under the microscope“:

[The fuselage issue] came to light late last month when Boeing told 787 operators to ground eight of the jets. Boeing earlier identified manufacturing issues in which workers at its South Carolina factory mated two fuselage barrels at the rear of the aircraft. The joiners, known as shims, weren’t as wide as the gap they were supposed to fill but were within engineering tolerance — the allowable margin for variation. On a small batch of aircraft, however, the improperly sized shims rubbed up against roughness in the inner lining.

In combination, the two issues were determined to weaken the carbon-fiber hulls so that they might not withstand the highest loads the aircraft could encounter in fight. All eight of the aircraft taken out of service for inspection and repairs were delivered last year, said one of the people familiar with the matter.

The company widely uses a tool known as “predictive shimming” with the 787 to measure by laser and precisely build shims to reinforce gaps in the plane’s structure.

With the [8] grounded 787s, a “software notification designed to alert when a shim exceeded the maximum thickness per engineering specifications was not used, leading to shims being produced that may not have fully met engineering requirements,” Boeing said in a letter to aircraft operators that was seen by Bloomberg.

Grounding an aircraft over a manufacturing defect is a big deal. From the Seattle Times, “Boeing admits a new manufacturing flaw on the 787 and tallies more 737 MAX cancellations“:

A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) engineer, who works on commercial airplane safety issues but cannot be identified because he spoke without agency permission, said Tuesday that although planes have been grounded in the past when in-service accidents revealed design flaws, “grounding airplanes for manufacturing flaws is unprecedented and unbelievable.”

So why did the bad shims pass muster? They didn’t. From The Air Current, “Scarce quality data on 787 skins as FAA peels back Boeing onion“:

While the spotlight is on the eight grounded jets, the concern, however, is more about each issue separately and its reflection on Boeing’s Quality Manufacturing System (QMS). Principally that the QMS didn’t catch the errors as the company has sought to justify reduced inspections in areas of the assembly process that have a history of “accuracy and stability,” according to the people familiar with the issues.

In the case of the aft fuselage join now under scrutiny by the FAA, the quality issues have revealed that the process was neither accurate nor stable with both the shim and skin surface issues cropping up.

In the five months between the 737 Max crashes of Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian 302, Boeing made the case to publications like The Seattle Times that it was ready to cut back 450 quality inspector positions in 2019 and another 450 in 2020 because of high tech tools it believed it had fielded successfully to create “proven processes” that only needed occasional and infrequent checks.

The process of using more automated and time-saving technologies to develop shims for the 787’s structure was one at the center of its argument that it didn’t require as much oversight from quality assurance staff. Boeing specifically cited a new tool designed to speed up shimming on the 787. The eight grounded 787s were manufactured by Boeing in 2019.

Those familiar with the FAA investigation into the 787’s quality concerns say that the assembly of the Section 47/48 and aft pressure bulkhead at the company’s North Charleston, S.C. facility has been considered to be one of those stable processes that the company can complete consistently.

So we’re not going to inspect work that we’re sure we can do without defects. What could go wrong?

680 aircraft: vertical tail fin. So here is how a manufacturing defect — which as we shall was the result of another shimming fail — made it all the way through production and was spotted by an alert mechanic (who’s probably being demoted or humiliated in some way, since no good deed goes unpunished). From KOMO News, a TV station (!) owned by Sinclair (!!), in the Seattle area, “Report raises new questions about structural integrity of Boeing 787 Dreamliner“:

New documents obtained exclusively by KOMO News Radio show the company could be be facing new questions about the structural integrity of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner, this time involving the vertical tail fin on that aircraft.

It’s not clear what airline the the mechanic worked for, but the technician noticed something wrong on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner while working on the tail of the aircraft. The mechanic noticed a slight dimple, also known as a depression, on the vertical fin, near the spot where it joins with the aircraft’s fuselage.

While a tiny dent or ding isn’t a problem on a car or SUV, they’re not too common on a multi-million dollar passenger jet. The mechanic reported the issue, prompting federal investigators to scrutinize nearly every plane in the entire Dreamliner fleet, according to documentation examined by KOMO News Radio.

One federal document focuses on issues with shims.

“This depression was located at a joint common to the Main Torque Box (MTB) skin, Rear Spar, and Route Fitting #4. Shims were properly installed prior to drilling of holes,” an investigator wrote. “Investigation suggests these shims were later discarded before final fastener installation.

(Discarded how? Thrown in the trash? Isn’t waste material tracked?) At this point, we remember Boeing’s lack of quality controls, above. Without the shim, there was a gap. However:

“You always want to avoid any gaps,” the retired Boeing engineer told KOMO News. “That’s what they use shims for. Because otherwise, you’re just going to pre-load. You’re going to crank it. The fact that you have dimples, that’s very indicative that you’ve got pull-up in the fasteners.”

Pause for explanation of engineering jargon (and I bet we’ve got readers who can correct me). From Eng-Tips, which is a really fun board:

Preload: obviously not desirable. You deform the material to close a gap. This induces extra tensile (bending) stresses which 1) reduce fatigue life and 2) is conducive to stress corrosion (which occurs when a steady tensile stress is maintained in the midst of a corrosive environment).

Pull-Up: Occurs when a gap exists between 2 faying surfaces and the joint is tightened. The result is that the gap closes due to local bending. This increases the stress state, and results in high potential for stress corrosion fatigue.

So, for this layperson, the assembler on the shop floor overtightened the fastener to compensate for the gap left by the missing shim. Hence the dimple. (I am guessing “pre-load,” because the material is already under stress, before additional, designed-for, stress is placed upon it). Back to KOMO:

The increased preload combined with the design loads could exceed the limit load capability of the joint,” [the Federal report found].

The limit load on a plane is the maximum weight allowed in a normal flight. Anything more than the limit load could cause strain on the structure of the plane, and over time, that strain can lead to serious issues if left unaddressed, experts say.

The federal document outlines what many engineers say is a worst-case and unlikely scenario, but not impossible: “The condition could result in failure of a PSE (principal structural element) to sustain limit load and could adversely affect the structural integrity of the airplane and result in loss of control of the airplane.”

A retired [I’ll bet] Boeing engineer who requested anonymity in order to speak freely notes the importance of PSE in aerospace.

“It’s any piece of structure on an airplane whose failure would result in a catastrophic event.”

So, when we looked at shim problems in the 787 fuselage, we found quality assurance was lacking. Now, when we look at shim problems in the 787 tailfin, we find that assembly workers ended up, in essence, torquing fasteners so hard the material around them dimpled. That’s not a good look, either. And now to the newest problem, the horizontal stabilizer.

900 aircraft: horizontal stablizer. From Bloomberg:

Almost every Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner may have a newly disclosed manufacturing flaw in its horizontal stabilizer, said a person familiar with the matter.

While Boeing says the issue doesn’t pose an immediate hazard, engineers are studying whether the fault could prematurely age the jets’ carbon-fiber structure.

(“Prematurely age”…. Everything old is new again!) And from Crains:

The flaw involving the horizontal stabilizers stemmed from components at a Boeing fabrication facility that were “clamped together” with greater force than engineering recommended, the company told reporters Tuesday. That led to “improper gap verification and shimming,”

It’s the same deal.

Lunar Lander Investigation

From Reuters, “Exclusive: Boeing to face independent ethics probe over lunar lander bid – document“:

Boeing Co is submitting to an independent review of its compliance and ethics practices, according to an agreement struck with NASA and the U.S. Air Force and seen by Reuters, part of widening fallout from its behavior in bidding to supply lunar landing vehicles.

Boeing’s space business was already under NASA scrutiny for its botched 2019 test flight of its Starliner space capsule.

The agreement calls for Boeing to pay a “third party expert” to assess its ethics and compliance programs and review training procedures for executives who liaise with government officials, citing “concerns related to procurement integrity” during NASA’s Human Landing System competition.

Swell. There’s also a criminal probe. From Reuters, “U.S. prosecutors probe ex-NASA official, Boeing over space contract: sources“:

The U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal probe into whether NASA’s former head of human spaceflight gave Boeing Co BA.N improper guidance during a lucrative lunar-lander contract competition, two people familiar with the matter said on Friday.

In the probe, opened in June, prosecutors are focusing on communication between Loverro and Boeing space executive Jim Chilton in late January, during a blackout period for the Human Landing System competition, one of the sources said.

In April, NASA bypassed Boeing – an industry juggernaut with deep ties to space travel – and awarded contracts worth a combined $1 billion to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Amazon.com Inc AMZN.O founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Leidos Inc affiliate Dynetics to build lunar landing vehicles that can carry astronauts to the moon by 2024.

Well, it’s not like Boeing has any reputational issues. Or needs the money.

Everett, Charleston, or both?

Finally, Covid has destroyed demand for aircraft. Boeing, with main assembly plants at Everett and Charleston, has excess capacity. What to do? From Leeham News and Analysis, “Pontifications: Boeing SC makes its case for 787 production consolidation—and it favors Everett“:

In the course of just two weeks, reports emerged about the grounding of eight 787s due to manufacturing defects from the Boeing SC plant; the possibility that more than 100 airplanes are potentially affected; and there is potentially a defect in the mating of the vertical fin to the fuselage.

Quality control at the Charleston plant has been a major issue since it opened, even after Boeing bought it from Alenia and a joint venture between Alenia and Vought. Employee turnover at Charleston historically is higher than desired, which hurts QC.

The Everett (WA) plant, with its long-time workers, have fixed traveled work from 787s emerging from the Charleston plant since inception. Some airlines refuse to take delivery of airplanes assembled in Charleston. (The Charleston Post and Courier last year published a damning story about this, complete with documentation about the poor QC.)

The Wall Street Journal reported last Monday—the Labor Day Holiday in the US—that QC issues at Charleston going back a decade are now being reviewed by regulators.

Of course, if union-busting is top-of-mind for Boeing management — they’ve certainly proved that manufacturing quality isn’t — they’ll consolidate in Charleston.

Conclusion

I don’t envy CEO David Calhoun his position. He’s probably safe, though. The Board already — after more than due deliberation — threw one CEO under the bus for the 737 MAX debacle, and it doesn’t seem to have changed things. I don’t want to seem harsh, but Boeing’s cash cow, the 737, turned into a dog. Its supposed star, the 787, is also turning into a dog, and never was a cash cow. How long does this go on?

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