Simulators at the center of the Boeing’s future put spotlight on systemic issues

"Sometimes you have to let things fail big so that everyone can identify a problem."

Just months before Lion Air 610 crashed into the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia, Boeing staff privately bemoaned how their company did business. The lamentation came not from the engineers designing the 737 Max, but rather the team fielding the simulators for the re-engined jet. It was a project mired in dysfunction.

”Sometimes you have to let things fail big so that everyone can identify a problem…maybe that’s what needs to happen rather than just continuing to scrape by,” wrote a Boeing staffer of the company’s factional internal organization in June 2018, part of 117-pages of documents released by the company last week.

Grounded since March 2019, the halt to flying the 737 Max will stretch past one year and the cost of the on-going crisis to Boeing could, according to some analysts, top $20 billion.

Flight simulators were an afterthought to Boeing — and even actively excluded from the core objectives of the 737 Max program — the plane maker and its airline customers now rely inextricably on their availability. Once a sliver of Boeing’s nascent services business, the training devices are now at the center of the 737 Max’s return to credibility. Simulators have become a strategic technology for Boeing and its customers.

Resource: Read the complete volume of Boeing emails

The company had long insisted no simulator training would be needed for pilots before flying the jet at its return to service, as well as those transitioning to the Max down the road. It was a position to which, until last week, the company held firm.

Boeing changed course on January 7, now recommending regulators include time in a simulator for re-training pilots flying the Max, after the unexpected results of engineering simulator trials with Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines and Aeromexico pilots in December. But days after it moved to recommend using the simulator to restore “public, customer and stakeholder confidence in the 737 Max,” according to its interim CEO Greg Smith, the company disclosed reams of documents that paint a picture that shakes the faith in the same simulators just as they’re needed most.

Related: Pilot procedure confusion adds new complication to Boeing 737 Max return

Airlines now face a severe bottleneck to getting their pilots up to speed for the jet’s return. American on Tuesday extended its 737 Max cancellations another two months to June 4, partially driven by uncertainty in the timing of the regulatory approvals and the upcoming simulator requirement, according to a spokesman.

Southwest on Thursday followed American and United in pushing its schedule into June. But Southwest, which has three CAE simulators coming online now, needs to run its entire 9,900 pilot corps through requalification before it returns to revenue flying. With three simulators running 20 hours a day, it could take up to six months to re-train its pilot corps after a formal ungrounding order is given by the Federal Aviation Administration. The airline is still adjusting to the rolling delays, deferring retirements of 11 more 737 Next Generation aircraft, according to a person familiar with its planning.

Southwest and its pilots union would require a formal side letter from its core contract to re-introduce the Max to its fleet with incrementally-trained groups of pilots. Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Jon Weaks told The Air Current there was a “fifty-fifty chance” of that happening. Without the waiver, Southwest’s return would push toward late 2020 or even 2021.

Simulator chaos

The new need for simulators has also collided with Boeing’s need to restore trust in the company and the 737 Max. The release of the documents to the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee late last week deepen the hole out from which the company must dig itself. The entirety of the volume, stretching between 2013 and 2018, is viewed today with hindsight and the full knowledge of all that has unfolded since the twin crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.

But the documents offer the clearest confirmations of what has long been alleged. First, that Boeing’s reluctance to disclose the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) on the aircraft was, in part, driven by its need to limit transition training to computer-based instruction for the aircraft. Second, the company viewed that requirement as sacrosanct and it permeated the aircraft’s design and how its transition training was certified.

Boeing this week announced internally that it was reorganizing its piloting staff into a single unit to improve communication, according to a report from Bloomberg News.

The volume of internal emails, meeting minutes and instant message conversations between employees also contains an expansive accounting of the “disorganized, chaotic, dysfunctional” development of the full motion Level D simulator for the 737 Max with its supplier TRU Simulation + Training, a unit of Textron.

The documents offer a look inside a workforce fielding the simulators under tremendous pressure from the weight of what it viewed as “systemic” cultural issues where leadership “messages are about meeting schedule, not delivering quality,” according to one email exchange between employees.

Origins of TRU

TRU was created in April 2014 through Textron’s acquisition of Mechtronix, OPINICUS and a portion of AAI Logistics & Technical Service. In July of that same year, TRU was awarded an exclusive contract by Boeing to supply the full-motion Level D simulator to its training campuses.

TRU was never supposed to take on this level of significance to Boeing and the 737 Max program. Boeing’s own news release on TRU’s selection in 2014 noted that “pilots already certified on the Next-Generation 737 will not require a simulator course to transition to the 737 Max.”

The Textron unit said last week it had achieved a 30% share of the Max simulator market, as it “worked together to create unsurpassable devices for operators and training organizations.” The company, based near Charleston, S.C. shares the market with L3Harris and CAE. Despite the intricacy of modern simulators, the near-replicas are increasingly a commodified product sought for the lowest possible cost. While a manufacturer like TRU or CAE builds the hardware, the simulator itself cannot function without the proprietary data package Boeing sells to simulator manufacturers under license. CAE last year surged its manufacturing of 737 Max simulators absent orders, anticipating the need from airlines.

Today, there are only 34 737 Max simulators in operation and airlines are scrambling to get more.

Systemic problems

“Integrity when lives are on the line on the aircraft and training programs shouldn’t be taken with a pinch of salt,” said one Boeing staffer in the disclosed documents. In the most stark assessment, the staffer continued, asking their colleagues in an instant message exchange from February 2018, “Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”

“No,” replied the second person. Both names were redacted as the pair, apparently part of its Training and Professional Services group (T&PS) discussed critical problems with the TRU simulators being set up Boeing’s Singapore, Gatwick and Shanghai training centers. One Boeing staffer described TRU as “disorganized, chaotic, dysfunctional, but hard working , honest, open to criticism (and there is a lot) but no different to other [training device manufacturers]but are cheaper and have to date, not failed to meet a major milestone.”

An FAA spokesman said in a statement that the aviation regulator “maintains a rigorous process for qualifying flight simulators. Upon reviewing the records for the specific simulator mentioned in the new Boeing documents, the agency determined that piece of equipment has been evaluated and qualified three times in the last six months. Any potential safety deficiencies identified in the documents have been addressed.”

While much of the criticism is leveled at TRU, the staffers turned a critical eye on Boeing’s culture toward the development. “We put ourselves in this position by picking the lowest cost supplier and signing up to impossible schedules. Why did the lowest ranking and most unproven supplier receive the contract? Solely based on the bottom dollar,” according to one email thread that stretched between two employees from May 31 to June 1, 2018.

“Everyone has it in their head meeting schedule is most important because that’s what Leadership pressures and messages. All the messages are about meeting schedule, not delivering quality,” according to the email exchange that stretched across two-days.

The teams responsible for the qualifying the simulators lived in fear for their jobs. “We managers were told names were being taken by senior leadership at the Level D Go/No Go meeting, now referred to internal as the Go/Go meeting,” the staffer wrote. “Not looking bad by missing schedule was more important and we missed the opportunity to fix things when there was low impact.”

The simulator strategy was flawed at the outset, the staffer contended. “It starts from our supplier selection process (or lack of) and continues to how we manage the supplier, the quality and support of Boeing data packages, substandard/non-existent requirements management, lack of resource staffing, lack of the right resources, lack of accountability, and hybrid ownership of programs/projects,” according to the two-day email thread. “It ends with our repeated decisions to push products into the field to meet often arbitrary schedules despite suppliers not delivering on commitments and clear quality concerns.”

One former senior Boeing executive who was deeply involved in the 787 development program said the descriptors by staff of Boeing’s management of TRU were reminiscent of the identical supplier woes from the Dreamliner’s early troubled years.

“I don’t know how to fix these things…It’s systemic. It’s culture,” one staffer wrote in the thread. Perpetually in search of strategies and techniques for lowering its costs for everything from labor costs to airplane development, Boeing own employees said its short-term focus led invariably to higher costs. Any savings that Boeing had derived from its low cost contract, wrote the same staffer, “cause us to unnecessarily spend amounts of effort (=$$$) to end up with poor quality products and pat ourselves on the back about it.”

Write to Jon Ostrower at

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