This 2018 NASA image shows an artist's concept of the low-boom flight demonstrator outside the Lockheed Martin Corporation's Skunk Works hangar in Palmdale, California. Photo: AFP / Lockheed Martin

The Wright Brothers invented the airplane. Engineering used to be the pride of the United States.

Now here comes this New York Times alert: “Boeing 737 Max crashes were ‘horrific culmination’ of errors, investigators say.”

The chief project engineer for Boeing’s 737 Max jet told House investigators that he approved a critical design change to software on the plane even though he was unaware of key details about how it worked or of a previous warning from a test pilot that if the system malfunctioned, the results could be “catastrophic.”

A new comprehensive report released Wednesday by the House Transportation Committee also says that the crashes of two new 737 Max aircraft in less than five months “were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”

This is a different aerospace industry from the one I grew up celebrating. In my household we admired the engineer/inventors of Lockheed’s fabled Skunk Works.

Those guys were devoted to doing great work, and so were others who were not privileged to be part of the holy shrine in Palmdale, California.

My own father, a flight test engineer for Bell Aircraft in the late 1930s and on to 1945, was a Purdue-trained engineer passionate about good engineering.

When the Marietta, Georgia, Bell-operated B-29 bomber plant closed following VJ Day and there were no more aerospace jobs to apply for, Pop went to work for Chrysler – because he rated it tops by far among the Big Three in automotive engineering.

When Lockheed reopened the Marietta plant after the North Korean invasion of the South, Pop of course returned to the aerospace industry, this time in purchasing and subcontracting.

He loved to hang around with the test pilots and others who could talk about how the aircraft were performing.

When I finished high school in 1960 I received a Lockheed scholarship that paid most of my college expenses and gave me summer jobs in the Marietta plant.

There I found that a big change may have come when the accountants and other financial types started to take over from the engineers, in accordance with the general US business move toward emphasizing shareholder returns.

Lockheed had long enforced a rule that anyone aspiring to top management had to have patented an aircraft design. I found the newer, financially oriented officers’ designs in a file cabinet in the Marietta plant’s legal department in the summer of 1961.

My high school physics project had been an electric fan blowing on a pair of wings to illustrate aerodynamic lift. It was clear even to me, far from a scientific type or an engineering type, that those accountant-designed planes would never get off the ground.

The beginning of the end?

Bradley K. Martin is an associate editor of Asia Times.

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