Boeing 737 MAX 8 to Return to the Indian Skies

About 30 airlines globally have allowed the Boeing 737 MAX 8 to return to service and in India too, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 is finally set to resume operations.

Issue: 5 / 2021By B.K. PandeyPhoto(s): By SpiceJet / Twitter
On November 23, 2021, India’s Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia flew on SpiceJet’s special flight using Boeing’s 737 Max plane. This marks the plane’s return to service after two and half years.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 that has been designed, developed and manufactured by Boeing Commercial Airplanes of the United States (US), is a narrow body airliner belonging to the fourth generation that was produced by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in four variants. This platform from the US aerospace major Boeing is an improvement on the Boeing 737 Next Generation and was designed with the intention of it to emerge as a strong competitor to the European Airbus A320neo family of airliners. The Boeing 737 MAX 8 is powered by a more efficient CFM International Leap-1B engine and as compared to the previous models in this family of airliners; it has a number of improvements and upgrades in aerodynamic features. The Boeing 737 MAX 8 undertook its maiden flight on January 29, 2016 and received its certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the US in March 2017. The first Boeing 737 MAX 8 was delivered in May 2017 to Malindo Air, a premium airline of Malaysia that commenced operations with this platform immediately after induction.

Unfortunately, this new model from perhaps the most reputed manufacturer of airliners in the world, ran into a serious problem resulting in two major accidents that turned out to be real disasters for the global airline industry. A Boeing 737 MAX 8 operating Lion Air Flight 610, a scheduled domestic flight that got airborne from Soekarno Hatta International Airport in Jakarta on October 29, 2018, crashed into the Java Sea just 13 minutes after getting airborne. All passengers and members of the air crew on board totalling to 189, lost their lives in this disaster. The death toll in this case was the highest among the accidents involving the entire Boeing 737 family of airliners. Just a little over four months later on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a scheduled international passenger flight operated with a Boeing 737 MAX 8 that took off from Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia, crashed near the town of Bishoftu six minutes after getting airborne, killing all 157 persons on board.

Investigations carried out by the competent authority in both these accidents pointed at problems with the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) which was an automated flight control system newly incorporated on the Boeing 737 MAX 8. As per the OEM, the MCAS was installed on the Boeing 737 MAX 8 to provide consistent aircraft handling characteristics at high angles of attack in certain unusual flight conditions only. The MCAS was meant to render the Boeing 737 MAX 8 capable of taking automated corrective action in the event of high angle of attack as well as G forces beyond normal flight conditions. For some strange reason, there was not enough information on the MCAS in the manuals meant for pilots operating the aircraft on account of which there was near total ignorance about the capabilities and nuances of the MCAS. Besides, the characteristics and behaviour of the MCAS did not form a part of the training of pilots who were converting on to the Boeing 737 MAX 8. It was for this reason that in both the fatal accidents, the pilots in command failed to react correctly and take appropriate action to prevent the MCAS from forcibly pushing the nose down at low altitude. Ignorance of the characteristics and behaviour of the MCAS on the part of the pilots in command is the primary reason that resulted in the two major disasters.

The effect of the two major disasters involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8 had quite understandably, traumatised the global airline industry. The net result was that all the 387 of this newly introduced modern platform were grounded across the world between March 2019 and December 2020. However, since the grounding of the fleet worldwide, there has been concerted effort by the OEM as also the regulatory agencies to identify the problem with the MCAS and make concerted effort to rectify flaws if any and to put in place standard operating procedures as also remodel the training curriculum of pilots in respect of the MCAS.

By the end of the year 2020, the FAA lifted the restrictions on Boeing 737 MAX 8. A number of countries that included Japan, Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, the UAE and Australia accepted the commencement of operations by this platform provided the aircraft’s return to flight was after the necessary technical modifications and additional pilot training. So far about 30 airlines in 175 countries have allowed the Boeing 737 MAX to return to service. In India too, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 is finally set to resume operations.