Following the first flight Friday of the fourth and largest model of Boeing’s 737 MAX, it will take an unusually long two years or more for flight tests before the MAX 10 can actually take to the skies with up to 230 passengers.
After the jet landed safely in Seattle, Commercial Airplanes CEO Stan Deal said Boeing needs time to develop and certify the additional safety enhancements to the MAX demanded in particular by the European aviation regulator after two fatal crashes of the smaller MAX 8 model.
As a result, although the MAX 10 was originally scheduled to enter service last year, it won’t do so until 2023 to provide ample time to address all regulatory requirements and test all the technical details.
“We’re going to take our time on this certification,” Deal said, in a short interview, his first since taking over Boeing Commercial Airplanes in October 2019.
“We’re committed to make further safety enhancements,” he said. “We need the time to do that, to allow the regulators to be on the airplane.”
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in January approved the MAX to fly again after Boeing fixed the flawed flight-control system directly responsible for the crashes in 2018 and 2019. However, EASA insisted that before the MAX 10 entered service, Boeing had to introduce further safety improvements.
It asked for the addition of some third way of measuring the jet’s angle of attack as well as enhancements to the crew alerting systems.
The flight-control system that went awry on the crash flights was triggered by a single faulty reading of the plane’s angle of attack, which is the angle between the wing and the oncoming air. Boeing’s current fix creates a system check that compares the angle of attack readings from the two sensors on either side of the cockpit.
However, EASA — as well as critics such as celebrated U.S. pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — have insisted two sensors isn’t enough. Deal confirmed that Boeing engineers are working on a way to provide a third indication of the angle of attack reading before the MAX 10 flies passengers.
This is what’s called a “synthetic” sensor, a system that provides an additional, indirect angle of attack calculation using a variety of different sensors and inputs.
EASA was also concerned that the pilots on both crash flights were confused by a cacophony of warning alerts going off simultaneously.
“We looked at an enhancement to the air data indication system” that provides alerts to the crew, Deal said. “We are working on that as we speak.”
After criticism of the Federal Aviation Administration for missing the design flaws in the flight-control system of the initial MAX 8 model, it’s clear the MAX 10 now faces a couple of years of particularly stringent oversight from the safety agency.
Three weeks ago, in another sign of new rigor at the FAA, Boeing had to stop deliveries of its 787 Dreamliner widebody jet pending the agency’s approval of the process for inspecting the 787 fuselages for manufacturing defects.
That pause is proving longer than expected, and Deal declined to speculate on when deliveries may be able to resume.
Deal said the thorough scrutiny of the MAX by regulators around the globe ensures its safety, and Boeing is seeing no reluctance by passengers to get on board.
Since the plane returned to service, he said, there have been 60,000 MAX flights, totaling 130,000 flight hours. And Deal said he has begun to see progress beyond the crippling downturn in aviation caused by the global pandemic.
“I’m very optimistic now,” he said. “We’re starting to see a recovery in the market, particularly pronounced in the U.S.”
“Boeing is getting back on its stride,” he said.
First flight of the last MAX model
The MAX 10 took off into a clear blue sky on its first flight, wheels lifting off the runway at Renton Municipal Airport shortly after 10 a.m. Friday.
The plane flew north to Everett, then east to Moses Lake and from there south to Yakima and Pasco and back to Moses Lake.
There was a touch-and-go at Moses Lake — touching the wheels to the runway, but not stopping, instead gunning the engines to soar away again. The jet then returned to Seattle and landed at Boeing Field almost exactly 2-1/2 hours later.
First down the steps off the plane at Boeing’s Delivery Center was 737 chief pilot Capt. Jennifer Henderson, who flew the aircraft. She was followed by co-pilot Capt. Jim Webb, chief pilot at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Henderson’s 10-year-old son and her 12-year-old daughter ran to their mother at the bottom of the steps and hugged her.
The pilots then shook hands with Boeing executives, including Deal and Ed Clark, the vice president in charge of the 737 MAX program.
Deal said the pilots reported to him it was “a clean flight.”
A crowd of just a few hundred employees had watched the takeoff in Renton. Chairs were socially distanced, but people mingled and no one wore masks.
Bobby Ray, 37, a 737 mechanic who has been at Boeing eight years, was among the employees who watched the MAX 10 take off. He helped build this first one.
“I’m super proud of this plane,” Ray said. “It shows we’re still Boeing. We still build a great product.”
Also watching was David Knowlen, 78, a veteran of more than 50 years at Boeing who was present 54 years ago for the first flight of the first 737 model, the 737-100, in April 1967.
“I’m as excited today about this,” he said. “This is a day to celebrate. It’s the start of another opportunity.”
Deal said the Renton assembly plant is now building jets at the rate of about 16 MAXs per month, halfway to the target set for next year. He praised the workers for their efforts in getting production back on track.
“It’s a great day for them,” Deal said. “They get to smile when they see the birth of one of their airplanes and today is the birth of the -10.”
During the long production pause in Renton, Boeing changed the paperwork that guides the mechanics to better organize their jobs, which Deal said is part of a “relentless focus on stability in the factory.”
A long delay in this first flight
But the journey to first flight for the MAX 10 has been an exceptionally long one, delayed by the 21-month grounding of the MAX fleet after two fatal crashes and then by the aviation downturn because of the pandemic.
Monica Sherman, 49, a 737 electrician who has been with Boeing 14 years, worked on the MAX program from the start and specifically on the first planes of each model.
Her work on the MAX 10 started in March 2019, the same month the MAX was grounded worldwide, when she went to Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita for a week as this first plane’s fuselage was built.
Her team went to Wichita to make sure the fuselage was coming together properly.
“Sometimes they might miss something. We had to check anything new” relative to the earlier MAX models, Sherman said.
In July that year, the fuselage arrived by train in Renton for final assembly.
“Because it’s a new airplane, we get a lot of rework to bring it up to what the engineers’ intent was,” Sherman said. “On the first one, we are always looking for improvements.”
Because the MAX 10 is so long — 14 feet longer than the initial MAX 8 version — engineers had to design landing gear that would be 9 inches taller to avoid the tail hitting the runway on takeoff. Yet the gear still had to fit into the same wheel well when it retracted.
That required some clever engineering and introduced different procedures for the mechanics when it came together in final assembly.
“When you get the new landing gear put on, you find some differences that didn’t work 100%,” Sherman said. “So we had to go back and redo a little bit of the work.”
“As we’ve built the airplane, we’ve seen things coming together,” she said. “We got it through where it’s at the (required) FAA level.”
A sales battle with the Airbus A321
After more than two years of tough, negative news at Boeing, first with the MAX crashes and the grounding, and then with the collapse air travel during the pandemic, Sherman said she finds hope in the MAX 10 first flight.
“I’m very optimistic things will turn around,” she said. “We’re getting to be human again, without our masks. Normality is coming.”
Now Boeing’s sales team must try to sell the MAX 10 and claw back some of the market share lost to the rival Airbus A321neo.
The market has already spoken, said aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group. “The MAX 10 is being beaten to the tune of 5 to 1.”
That’s not only because the Boeing jet is so late. Its performance is lacking in key respects.
Analyst Bjorn Fehrm of consultancy Leeham.net has developed a sophisticated independent model that uses Boeing’s more conservative assumptions about passenger weights and necessary fuel reserves to allow a direct apples-to-apples comparison between the Airbus and Boeing jets.
The Airbus A321neo baseline model has a maximum capacity of 10 more seats than the MAX 10. If filled to capacity, Fehrm’s model shows the two planes have similar range, with the Airbus jet having only a slight edge. At a more typical airline seating capacity of 210 seats, they have essentially the same range.
But Airbus has a longer-range version of the A321neo in service already, the A321LR. With 210 passengers, that plane can fly 500 nautical miles farther than the MAX 10, Fehrm’s model shows.
With that range, the A321LR can comfortably fly transatlantic routes. JetBlue will begin New York to London service on it this August. Transatlantic is too far for the MAX 10.
And by the time the MAX 10 enters service in 2023, Airbus plans to have another even longer range model in service, the A321XLR.
The range deficiency is not the only problem. Although Boeing extended the MAX 10 landing gear, pilots still cannot rotate the nose up too sharply on takeoff or the jet will scrape its tail on the runway.
For the MAX 10 to take off from short runways or at airports that are hot and high, which reduces engine power, an airline may have to lower the jet’s weight by blocking out some seats to carry fewer passengers.
“For Denver to L.A. on a hot summer day, the A321 is definitely the better airplane,” said Fehrm.
For airlines that don’t need the extra range and already fly 737s, the MAX 10 may work well. Deal said he fully expects to see more orders for the MAX 10 now that it’s flown.
But while more sales will surely come — Ryanair has expressed an interest — Boeing will have trouble catching up on the A321neo.
Among the Boeing executives who watched the jet take off in Renton were Keith Leverkuhn, the now retired vice president who led the MAX program from the beginning, and Michael Teal, who was chief engineer on the MAX program and now has the same role on 777X.
In testimony to Congress in May last year, Teal said he was unaware of crucial technical details of the flight control system that triggered inadvertently and caused the two crashes in 2018 and 2019.
And Leverkuhn in his testimony denied the airplane had any design flaws beyond an assumption that the pilots would have reacted differently to the triggering of the system.
Neither Leverkuhn nor Teal were made available for interviews.