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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, January 23rd, 2022

Book Review: Flying Blind examines the bad decisions that led to Boeing’s current crises

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.

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