Boeing’s Latest Starliner Woes

CNN is generally a terrible news source, at least on politics, but Jackie Wattles is an excellent space reporter.

[Update a few minutes later]

Not space related, but an example of how scurrilous (and hypocritical) CNN can be in general, despite their good reporters.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Is this vehicle cursed?

[Friday-morning update]

The latest, from Jim Meigs.


[Saturday-afternoon update]

The return is now delayed indefinitely.


58 thoughts on “Boeing’s Latest Starliner Woes”

  1. Cursed? That’s an odd way to say that Boeing has a serious quality control problem across the entire company. They must bribe the ISO inspectors with some top-notch hookers.

      1. Yeah, we joke, but I can’t see how Boeing keeps their ISO9000 certification otherwise. That Titanium shipment from China was not up to ISO standards, and whaddya know, planes might break apart in midair, assuming they were bolted together properly to begin with. Software that overrides pilots and flies planes into the ground, doors popping off at 15000 feet, garbage in KC46 fuel tanks, garbage in undelivered 737 Max fuel tanks, the list goes on and on. A smaller manufacturer with such QC issues would have had their certification pulled long ago.

        1. I’m old enough to remember when Boeing left the air tanks for the ISS airlock outside by the trash at Marshall.

        2. All ISO means is that whatever stupidity goes on, there’s paperwork to back it up. The certificate is impressive unless you’ve seen how the sausage is made. It only means anything good if the organization wants to do things right or their customers insist. That ship sailed away from Boeing a long time ago. Now, just one more form to be pencil whipped.

          1. As part of the sausage making club, having gotten a company up to ISO9001 compliance, I take it sort of personally.

  2. From the CNN article:
    For example, he said, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule — a direct predecessor of Crew Dragon — completed more than a decade of uncrewed cargo missions to the space station before Crew Dragon took flight.

    “SpaceX did have a head start with the cargo program,” Lembeck said. “I think they do have an advantage that Boeing did not have. Boeing’s kind of having to build a crew vehicle all up from scratch.”

    I recall the outrage when LM won CEV, because it didn’t have the experience of McD that Boeing acquired. Now the company most people never heard of in 2006 is the one with the experience advantage. Ha!

      1. And Boeing never had any. It was North American Rockwell that built the Apollo Command Module (and the Shuttle Orbiter). Boeing may have bought them, but that’s meaningless. Boeing also bought Rocketdyne, and for a while issued the most disgusting advertisements I can remember, claiming that Boeing had built all of the engines that powered the Saturn V. Boeing had nothing to do with Saturn propulsion, and the only hardware they built was the S-IC stage (Saturn V first stage) – sans engines.

  3. Software that overrides pilots and flies planes into the ground

    That was actually a feature of one of the early Airbus models.

      1. The one I’m thinking of wasn’t at an airshow, although it was in France. Wasn’t it a Tu-144(?) (Soviet Concordski) that crashed at the airshow?

        1. There was a low-pass scheduled of some scarebus, the pilot got down to ~150 agl, tried to go around but the flight management system said you’re landing and would not spool up the engines

  4. You all are being a little hard on Boeing. The leak and faulty thrusters get burned up on re-entry.
    It makes sense to try to figure out what is wrong while the faulty parts still exist.

    The 737 max accidents were pilot error. Nothing more. Nothing less.
    Everyone knows, when you operate any powered vehicle, from a go-cart to a 777, when you have an issue, the first thing you do is reduce power. Not only did both max accident aircraft hit the ground at full throttle, on the second one, Ethiopian Air I think, the crew shut off the trim system, and then turned it back on again.
    Boeing has some issues, but these are not it.

    1. Everyone knows, when you operate any powered vehicle, from a go-cart to a 777, when you have an issue, the first thing you do is reduce power.

      Go-carts don’t have a V1 speed and not everyone is familiar with aircraft operations.

        1. I will allow that these crews didn’t have The Right Stuff.

          That said, and even though I am decades from “being current”, I recall that the private pilot lessons on recovering from unusual attitude had something to with if you were pointed nose down, reduce power so you don’t head towards the ground any more quickly than you have to.

          Pulling back on the control yoke was actually number 3 on the list. If I remember correctly, number 1 is reduce power, number 2 is neutralize your roll angle and number 3 is pull up. Not doing 1 and 2 before 3 was explained to tighten a diving turn.

          That said, an instructor never had me practice this recovery with an errant stall warning buzzer sounding (stick shaker on a jet). If we ascribe these accidents to improper pilot procedure, could we agree that the two crews were operating under a serious distraction in the form of stick-shaker stall warning resulting from the faulty angle-of-attack indicator?

          1. The issue with MCAS is that although designed as a pilot assist system, it turned into a borderline primary flight control system, but was still designed certified as pilot assist. Lack of effective redundancy management is a good example.

            The consequences were that the aircraft could “get ahead” of a below average pilot and put them in a situation they didn’t have the skills to recover from.

            It’s easy to say “well, shitty pilots, what do you expect”, but those pilots had their tickets and had a minimum skill level, and the FAA certified and Boeing continued to sell this aircraft as being safe for those left-side-of-the-normal-distribution pilots. Maybe those pilots shouldn’t have been pilots, and the Ethiopian Air crew seems particularly egregious, but Boeing and the FAA have at least an equal share of the blame. (The FAA deserves to get wirebrushed just as hard as Boeing about 737MAX.)

        2. That’s because the procedure for low altitude stall recovery was to hold the nose above the horizon and increase power. The problem with the 737 Max design is it moved the engines from under the wing center of lift to in front of the wing center of life. The increase throttle also increased a moment arm that lifted the nose. Boeing knew this, so they created the MCAS system to compensate. But because the FAA and Boeing didn’t want 737 pilots to get a new type rating, they didn’t have airlines change the procedure for low altitude stall recovery. The pilots did what they were trained to do in earlier model 737s. A 737 is neither a go-cart nor single engine training aircraft.

          1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in at one of the two cases, the flight data recorder showed MCAS being switched both OFF and then ON again just prior to the crash.

            I’ve often wondered if the pilots had left MCAS off, then any issues induced by incorrect pilot control input could have been deduced by the pilots and corrected. But having MCAS override their input controls merely added confusion to the situation. One in which mere seconds mattered at low altitude.

            Was the real failure here the idea that with MCAS you didn’t need to re-train 737 certified pilots for the 737-MAX, because tech made up for a change in wing center of lift?

            IIRC there was also the lack of (was it pitot?) redundancy in system inputs to MCAS.

          2. Yes. Although technically, they cut out the auto trim. The switches are on the left side below the speed brake. Not only did the second crash turn it off and turn it back on, which indeed was fatal; but a previous event with Lion Air was prevented because the crew turned it off, turned it back on, and turned it off again quickly and kept it off.

    2. As originally implemented, MCAS would command heavy nose down trim in the event of a single point failure of an angle of attack sensor. Allowing it to use a second AoA sensor was an extra cost option. When the 737 Max was certified, pilots weren’t even told MCAS existed. We might want to believe those foreign pilots weren’t up to US standards, but Boeing’s MCAS implementation was inexcusably, and perhaps even criminally negligent. Single point failures aren’t supposed to cause an airliner to crash.

      1. I have heard of one instance where AA pilots used the well documented run away trim procedure to correct it without further incident. Those crashed pilots should have noticed the madly whirling trim wheels and just turned them off as they were supposed to have been trained to. MCAS was the cause of the failure but it wasn’t a problem unique to MCAS, other things can and do lead to run away trim. Part of being a pilot is noticing when the automatic systems malfunction and knowing how to respond.

        Still, not letting the pilots know what was happening or how the planes worked was unforgivable. It’s aiming to cost Boeing 24 billion in fines.

      1. Starliner is powered from ISS when docked, so that seems unlikely. Battery dormant life is more than 6 months, obviously. With a landing cycle time of 4 days, 45 days matches with a July 20 landing opportunity. Maybe there’s a phase angle cutout after that? I don’t know.

  5. The Max problem had nothing to do with engine thrust lines. The larger nacelles of the newer higher bypass engines introduced a longitudinal destabilizing moment as they were ahead of the wing. This meant that the stick force gradient flattened as the flaps up stall was approached. MCAS introduced some down trim to increase the gradient. There are about 5 other auto/manual trim systems that can cause a trim runaway hence the cutoff switches. Or simply grab the trim wheel and stop it from turning.

          1. I read the original Marooned in 64, I think. It featured a long-term Mercury flight with Slsyton’s unused capsule and the rescue using the Gemini II capsule. Much better than the movie or it’s derivative book. No Gregory Peck saying, “You must… THIMK!” The plot of the movie was partly stolen from “The Cold Equations.”

        1. Back in the day, either “Cracked” or “Mad” did a spoof called “Maroondeded” and it was hilarious.
          “Fire the main engine!” *patoot toot toot*
          “Fire the backup engine!” *paatat tat tat*
          “Uh oh!”

  6. If your cruise control starts acting erratically, do you disconnect it and go get it repaired? Or do you floor it and start troubleshooting it while you accelerate?

    1. If we’re analogizing the software “fix” with cruise control, you’d be talking about a cruise control which kicks in on its own and overrides the brakes and gas pedal. Oh yeah, and the customer isn’t told about the cruise control; he thinks he’s driving a standard.

      1. Wrong. MCAS is embedded within the pitch trim system, which has several intermittent disconnects, and several on/off switches which completely disable it.

  7. I saw this headline on some random YouTube channel I assumed was one of those computer voice click bait channels but it turns out they were ahead of the regular space nerd channels by a week or more.

      1. The leak was on the airlock supply side, not inside the suit. When Dyson unplugged, it started spraying “snow” inside the evacuated airlock. Probably just a check valve. The airlock is more than 20 years old.

        1. Maybe instead of Gateway, they should be bending metal with CBM adapters to put new sections on the ISS, thus making it more like Atlantic City. With the newer sections having snazzy names like Boardwalk and Park Place while the older, more broken down sections, get names like Mediterranean and Baltic Ave?

          1. Splashing ISS is entirely political. Partly it’s a way to get rid of the Russians, but also there are elements of the Deep State that have always wanted to splash ISS ASAP, many of whom work for NASA.

            If it were up to me, I’d repurpose Gateway as a replacement for ROS. Detach ROS at Zarya forward, replace it with am IDA/APAS adaptor, and dock Gateway. Screams about shattering gaskets are bullshit. Replacing Pirs worked fine. Then launch a Cygnus outfitted as a machine shop to berth a Node 1 and get to work upgrading/repairing ISS phase 1 (Node 1 and the US lab). The rest of ISS (Nodes 2 and 3 and the Japanese segment) are much newer. I’d discard Columbus (too little) and BEAM) and replace them with something. Then, with the Axiom segment complete, you have a renovated station with a crew of 24. Good till 2050, or later.

            Anybody who says a new station would be better/cheaper is just chanting the party line.

  8. So, NASA and Boeing have admitted the 45-day constraint is arbitrary and can be extended as necessary. I believe that’s called “normalizing variance?” Dragon Crew-9 is scheduled for August 15 or thereabouts. It could come up with 2 crew (the commander and the Russian) and SpaceX suits for Butch and Suni, who would stay till February. If that happens, there has to be a CFT-2. Although, times being as they are, that might depend on the election.

    1. According to Heinlein, from LEO you are halfway to anywhere in the Solar System. Starliner’s inability to return crew to the Earth’s surface is the exception that proves the rule…

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