In the wake of two fatal airline crashes in less than five months involving Boeing’s modern 737 Max (8 and 9) airplanes —which were the emerging workhorse for major airline fleets worldwide—pilots transporting one such plane were forced to make an emergency landing Tuesday afternoon.
Soon after takeoff, CNN announced that pilots of Southwest Airlines Flight 8701 reported an engine performance issue and returned to Orlando International Airport.
This incident was considered by the FAA to be unrelated to the two crashes currently being investigated by the FAA, Boeing and the FBI. This latest incident follows the March 13 grounding by President Trump of all 737 Max aircraft operating in the United States. The emergency order effectively grounded all remaining commercial operations of the aircraft as the U.S. was the last remaining country to do so.
Lion Air Flight 610 crashed after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia, on October 29, 2018, killing all 189 people on board. Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed March 10, 2019, killing 157 people. In both cases, the anti-stall or Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) is suspected of being the primary cause.
MCAS was incorporated into the 737 Max design primarily as an enhancement to prevent stalls when the aircraft manufacturer was modernizing the 737,.That model was first introduced in 1969 as the 737-200, to meet large back orders from airline customers.
Boeing installed larger, more efficient engines on the Max during design and testing, which required moving the engines forward and higher on the leading edge of the wings. This change presented a higher potential for the aircraft to stall due to a propensity for the plane to nose up from the power and balance position of the engines.
The MCAS, which is operated by software and is triggered by sensor readings, makes automated adjustments to trim the nose down to avoid stalls. The similarity between both crashes, based on preliminary tracking data, prompted many nations and carriers, including the European Union, to take the 737 Max out of service. The Trump administration and the FAA were last to ground the 737 Max, which will remain grounded indefinitely.
According to the March 13 FAA statement, “The agency made this decision as a result of the data gathering process and new evidence collected at the site and analyzed today. This evidence, together with newly refined satellite data available to FAA this morning, led to this decision. The grounding will remain in effect pending further investigation.”
Why was the 737 Max Flying when it’s Officially Grounded?
Southwest Flight 8701 was part of standard operations to relocate aircraft to storage during official investigations.
Repositioning flights are common in the airline industry. As part of the grounding process, Southwest is ferrying its remaining 737 Max aircraft to storage locations that have the capacity to secure the fleet and reduce operational costs as the investigation continues, currently with an indefinite timeline. Flight 8701 was in route to Victorville, California, operating as a non-commercial flight without passengers.
In the aerospace industry, Victorville is well known for being a primary location to store or retired aircraft. Known as the Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA) today, the installation previously served as George Air Force Base. It is located in the high Sierra Desert approximately more than an hour’s drive east of Edwards Air Force Base and south of Naval Air Station, China Lake, which are currently in operation.
The open space and arid climate of SCLA serve as a lower-cost alternative to airlines storing aircraft that are not in operation. The dry air helps to preserve the aircraft. Several similar sites are located in Mojave, California, Pinal Airpark and Davis-Monthan in Southern Arizona, to name a few.
Many of the sites served as surplus receiving centers for military and commercial aircraft after major events including world wars and 9/11 when caches of airplanes were taken offline either due to changing Pentagon budgets and military needs or because of a falling economy.
Known as airline “boneyards,” the sites today are filled with non-operational military and commercial aircraft of all designs and sizes, and many have become tourist attractions for aerospace enthusiasts.
Many will serve as storage sites for the aircraft for the time being.