A 30,000-foot trust fall

Downfall documentary shows the deception and greed behind Boeing’s 737 Max disaster

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

There are some films you probably don’t want to watch before embarking on a long airplane trip. Downfall: The Case Against Boeing should be right at the top of that list.

Crash victims’ family members gather to spread awareness for Boeing’s faulty 737 Max aircraft. Screenshot from Downfall.

The documentary directed by Rory Kennedy was released at the end of February on Netflix. The film follows the events that led to 2019 airline crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, both of which involved the controversial Boeing 737 Max airplane.

The crashes, which occurred five months from one another, killed a combined 346 people after an updated feature to the Boeing 737 Max malfunctioned and sent aircrafts into dives that were virtually impossible for pilots to pull out of — mostly because they knew nothing about the system that had been added to the 737 Max.

Watching the documentary, one feels almost as if they are strapped into an airliner at 30,000 feet, putting their trust 100% in the pilots, the airplane manufacturers and the company that once enjoyed a stellar reputation before this incident uncovered the deception that led to the deaths of almost 350 people.

The film begins by covering the heyday of Boeing, which emphasized safety, excellence and ingenuity over all else for several decades. 

“Those three virtues were seen as the key to profit,” Kennedy said in the film. “It could work, and beautifully. And then they were taken over by a group that decided Wall Street was the end-all, be-all. There needs to be a balance in play, so you have to elect representatives that hold the companies responsible for the public interest, rather than just lining their own pocketbooks.”

The turning point in Boeing’s history, as Kennedy alluded to, was when the company merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, with Boeing named as the surviving company after a $13 billion stock swap. In what was described as a “clash of corporate cultures,” Boeing’s engineers and McDonnell Douglas’s beancounters went head-to-head. The result was a move away from Boeing’s expensive, ground-breaking engineering toward what some critics called a more cutthroat culture devoted to keeping costs down and foregoing innovation for the cheaper option to update older models.

“The fatal fault line was the McDonnell Douglas takeover,” wrote Clive Irving, author of Jumbo: The Making of the Boeing 747. “Although Boeing was supposed to take over McDonnell Douglas, it ended up the other way around.”

Pressured by the increased revenue of rival aircraft manufacturer Airbus, Boeing was fresh out of the merger when the company began to emphasize profits over safety. Instead of revamping the workhorse of the fleet — the 737 — Boeing added more fuel-efficient engines to the existing airframe, which also helped cut costs because pilots would not have to be trained on the newly upgraded airplane.

Because the engines were larger than the previous 737 model, Boeing had to tack on a new system called the “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, “or MCAS, which tilted the nose of the aircraft down to help prevent stalls when climbing at a certain angle. It was essentially a software fix for a hardware problem, but the MCAS system often relied on single sensors, which if they were malfunctioning, could send the aircraft into a dive. 

Through their investigation, the documentary filmmakers cited minutes from meetings with Boeing, in which company leaders discussed externally referring to the new system as an upgrade to the speed trim system. Internally, however, the company referred to it as MCAS. This was mainly to save Boeing money from having to train pilots in the new system. 

As a result, when a sensor malfunctioned, a pilot had a mere 10 seconds to figure out how to save the plane from the dive, by turning off a system they didn’t know was even on the airplane. If they couldn’t figure it out by then, the plane would enter an uncontrollable dive, as the two planes did in 2019, killing everyone on board.

Downfall is a sad story about how the insatiable greed of corporations leads to the death of trusting airline passengers. Though the issue has since been fixed and 737 Max planes brought back into service, Boeing’s reputation — along with their precious stock price — has tanked after this fiasco. The company has spent more than $10 billion as a result of the 737 Max fiasco and it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take for the company to rise to the level of excellence by which it was once defined. Stream it on Netflix, but be advised that it might make you a little more nervous when boarding your next flight.

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