Flying Blind promotional image
Flying Blind promotional image

Although multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions are often accused of putting prof­it over peo­ple, Peter Robison’s Fly­ing Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boe­ing makes the case that there once was a time when Amer­i­ca’s biggest aero­space com­pa­ny was a more respon­si­ble and peo­ple-cen­tric firm, focused on its the suc­cess of its busi­ness as opposed to just bal­ance sheets and stock prices.

By explor­ing and retelling Boeing’s his­to­ry, Robi­son offers a pro­file of a com­pa­ny devot­ed to laud­able achieve­ments in aero­space engi­neer­ing — a com­pa­ny will­ing to sac­ri­fice mil­lions to ensure its air­craft were the safest available.

Lead­ers and engi­neers are intro­duced as proud of the com­pa­ny they work for, one that is renowned for inno­va­tion as well as transparency.

Boe­ing’s rep­u­ta­tion for trans­paren­cy was well main­tained, lead­ing the com­pa­ny to take full respon­si­bil­i­ty for the 1985 747 crash that killed five hun­dred and twen­ty peo­ple in Japan. Robi­son con­trasts that ster­ling rep­u­ta­tion with Boe­ing’s woe­ful pub­lic image today. By exam­in­ing Boeing’s high­est achieve­ments as well as its most dis­tress­ing fail­ures, Robi­son empow­ers read­ers to bet­ter under­stand the sequence of ill-fat­ed deci­sions that have brought Boe­ing where it is today.

The first sec­tion of the book estab­lish­es Boe­ing’s rise to promi­nence, start­ing with the devel­op­ment of planes like the B‑29 Super­fortress, a long-range bomber air­craft flown in the lat­ter phas­es of World War II. (The Super­fortress was built in Puget Sound, and gets its name from its small­er pre­de­ces­sor, the B‑17 Fly­ing Fortress, which was already in use at the time the war broke out.)

A major vic­to­ry for Boe­ing com­ing out of the war was the exten­sive data col­lect­ed from an Aero­nau­ti­cal Research Insti­tute in Germany.

Boe­ing engi­neers were able to dras­ti­cal­ly improve designs for their upcom­ing jet-pow­ered bomber, allow­ing them to keep up with much larg­er competitors.

Robison’s first chap­ters describe Boeing’s ear­ly engi­neer­ing vic­to­ries in the pro­duc­tion of planes for the Unit­ed States mil­i­tary in lan­guage that is easy for those out­side of the engi­neer­ing field to understand.

Boeing’s most promi­nent ear­ly fig­ures, whose per­son­al­i­ties are well estab­lished, give the book a more per­son­al and enter­tain­ing feel.

One of Boeing’s pres­i­dents, William Allen, is described as “nev­er travel[ing] with­out Triscuits and a pair of eye­glass­es.” The pres­i­den­t’s res­o­lu­tions for the com­pa­ny from his per­son­al jour­nal are also dis­cussed: Be con­sid­er­ate of my asso­ciates’ views, don’t talk too much, let oth­ers talk, make sin­cere efforts to under­stand labor’s view­point, and devel­op a post­war future for Boe­ing.

The com­pa­ny’s engi­neers give life to the sto­ry, illus­trat­ing a hard work­ing team from hum­ble begin­nings, ded­i­cat­ed to and inspired by Boeing’s achievements.

This team called itself The Incredibles.

It includ­ed Alvin “Tex” John­ston, who is described as always wear­ing cow­boy boots and once exe­cut­ed a bar­rel roll over Lake Wash­ing­ton in front of three hun­dred peo­ple, all with­out telling any­one he was plan­ning to try it.

This team of engi­neers com­bined these the­atrics with a rig­or­ous devo­tion to their jobs, com­ing from all across the coun­try because they believed in Boeing’s vision.

The next few chap­ters con­tin­ue through Boeing’s his­to­ry, includ­ing the pro­duc­tion of the 737 and 747, reach­ing a turn­ing point and dis­tinc­tive tone shift around the ear­ly 1990s. Robi­son explains the cul­tur­al shifts through cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca that were gal­va­nized by Ronald Reagan’s approach to the economy.

This includ­ed the idea that prof­its and share­hold­ers should be the main priority.

For Boe­ing, the 1990s proved to be an extreme­ly suc­cess­ful era, allow­ing them to buy one of their old­est exist­ing com­peti­tors, but also demon­strat­ed Boeing’s will­ing­ness to aban­don its found­ing principles.

The lega­cy of the res­o­lu­tions of for­mer pres­i­dent William Allen was replaced by a ded­i­ca­tion to max­i­miz­ing prof­its at seem­ing­ly any cost.

The board saw com­pa­ny-alter­ing turnover, includ­ing the addi­tion of Gen­er­al Elec­tric’s Jack Welch, who cham­pi­oned a cul­ture change at Boe­ing that de-empha­sized the impor­tance and val­ue of sound engineering.

As a con­se­quence, Boe­ing engi­neers found them­selves in a dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ment than what they had expect­ed. Peo­ple who had stud­ied and aspired for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be like The Incred­i­bles were left very disappointed.

One unnamed man­ag­er report­ed­ly said: “I hate this new cul­ture… I don’t want to be anybody’s facil­i­ta­tor, I want to come to work and kick some ass.”

The board became increas­ing­ly obsessed with push­ing Boe­ing’s stock price high­er, a far cry from its past ded­i­ca­tion to aero­space innovation.

The 2010s would reveal the con­se­quences of this men­tal­i­ty for Boeing.

With air­lines demand­ing bet­ter, more fuel effi­cient planes, Boe­ing faced the choice of either upgrad­ing the best­selling, nar­row-body 737, which was bring­ing in a third of their rev­enue, or design­ing an entire­ly new plane.

The 737 MAX became the result of pick­ing the cheap­er option, rather than sac­ri­fic­ing prof­its to design and con­struct some­thing new.

Addi­tions to the more expen­sive mod­el includ­ed sen­sors that could make cor­rec­tions for pilots. These cor­rec­tions could be over­rid­den in case of an error, but pilots need­ed to be thor­ough­ly trained on how to do so.

Not only was Boe­ing able to receive gov­ern­ment approval to allow the MAX to go into ser­vice with­out required train­ing, the com­pa­ny even reject­ed requests from air­lines for pilot train­ing. This includ­ed Lion Air, whose request for pilot train­ing was denied, pre­cip­i­tat­ing the 737 MAX crash that sub­se­quent­ly killed 189 people.

Robi­son focus­es his con­clud­ing chap­ters on this dev­as­tat­ing 737 MAX crash, detail­ing Boeing’s respons­es and com­par­ing them to crash respons­es in the past.

Robi­son pro­vides a thor­ough account of Boeing’s cur­rent stand­ing and rep­u­ta­tion, detail­ing where it all went wrong and high­light­ing some of the key vil­lains in Boeing’s sto­ry. The final chap­ters are fast paced and gripping.

Fly­ing Blind was high­ly engag­ing and espe­cial­ly thor­ough. The bio­graph­i­cal por­traits were well devel­oped and the inter­views were very illuminating.

The book’s dis­cus­sion of eco­nom­ic shifts in cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca is par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pelling. Read­ers from the Seat­tle area will like­ly enjoy read­ing sto­ries about key moments and events that took place in the Pacif­ic Northwest.

Fly­ing Blind is well worth read­ing and its nar­ra­tive style makes it eas­i­ly man­age­able for any­one who strug­gles with nonfiction.

Adjacent posts