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Boeing CEO blames pilots for 737 MAX crashes

written by Adam Thorn | March 6, 2020

Boeing’s new chief executive appeared to blame pilots for the two 737 MAX crashes in a candid interview with The New York Times.

David Calhoun told the newspaper that pilots from Indonesia and Ethiopia “don’t have anywhere near the experience that they have here in the US”. He added the planemaker made a “fatal mistake” by assuming those flying the aircraft would immediately counteract software failures, which played a role in both accidents.

In a wide-ranging discussion that took place months into his tenure, he also criticised his predecessor and referenced talks with President Donald Trump.

Boeing’s previous chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, was fired in December. It came after the two 737 MAX crashes, which killed 346 people as well as setbacks that included the shutdown of the 737 factory last year.

The 737 MAX has been grounded for a year by regulators around the world, and Boeing has faced a series of delays in returning the aircraft to service. Industry rumours now suggest it will return to service in a few months.

In his most controversial remarks with reporters,  Calhoun appeared to imply inferior standards in Indonesia and Ethiopia, where the captains flew, played a part in the accidents.


The New York Times then claimed Calhoun asked to speak off the record when journalists asked him if American pilots would have been able to handle the software malfunction.

When the newspaper demanded an on-the-record response, he said, “Forget it. You can guess the answer.”

He also spoke at lengths about the problems Boeing now faces as it scrambles to return the 737 MAX to service, and took a swipe at his predecessor, Muilenburg.

“It’s more than I imagined it would be, honestly. And it speaks to the weaknesses of our leadership. Boards are invested in their CEOs until they’re not. We had a back-up plan. I am the back-up plan,” Calhoun said.

He was also asked if he felt his predecessor was well judged to begin ramping up production rates before many believed the supply chain was ready.

“I’ll never be able to judge what motivated Dennis, whether it was a stock price that was going to continue to go up and up, or whether it was just beating the other guy to the next rate increase,” Calhoun said.

“If anybody ran over the rainbow for the pot of gold on stock, it would have been him.

“If we were complacent in any way, maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. We supported a CEO who was willing and whose history would suggest that he might be really good at taking a few more risks.”

He also claimed President Trump “wants us to get back on our horse” and “to get the MAX flying again, safely”.


  • Roger Reading


    This same thing happened when Airbus first brought in Fly by Wire. We have learnt nothing if what he say is true.

  • Jason Bacon


    Without a shadow of a doubt; experience, knowledge, and skill levels are significantly lower in Indonesia. This has been proved to me many many times. Pilots don’t read manuals (even if the procedure was in the manual – which it wasn’t) and have an almost unbelievably low level of safety awareness – not to mention the deeply corrupt regulator. Still, Boeing produced a dynamically unstable aircraft and didn’t provide pilots with appropriate guidance or training to handle a critical system failure. Even French pilots have trouble inputting correct stall recovery techniques on an Airbus. So your argument that the lowest common denominator was over-estimated isn’t valid. There are some very very low skill airline pilots out there (yes likely clustered in the third world) – your job is to create an easy to fly aircraft – with safety back-ups, just like the last airworthy 737 model you produced – the 737-800.

    • Ronnie


      I’m not convinced that the 737-800 isn’t without its problems also. I can’t believe that some of the software issues, wiring, trim wheel size, cockpit confusion and other issues unearthed in the 737 Max are not also present in the 737-800. Scary.

  • Cyrus Lesser


    This is not good ol’ Boeing. It’s Mullenberg’s deputy who has the absolute chutzpah to intimate that US pilots would have been able to compensate for Boeing’s software errors. How dare they certify and sell a plane to ANYONE without telling them that they’d hidden some secret software in it that will drop the nose if it thinks, based on a single blocked pitot tube, that the angle of attack is too high. No redundancy, no checklist mention, no disclosure to the regulator.


    • PB


      Cyrus, American pilots DID compensate for the Boeing software error, as you would, or I would. Both Southwest and American Airlines have the 737 MAX and both reported the same runaway symptom, and in the reports the pilots released the autopilot and hand flew the aircraft, as any pilot with stick and rudder skills should be able to do. What would I have done if I was the pilot? I would have immediately seen an imbalance and reached down to the center console and pulled the disconnect for the autopilot and hand flown the plane.
      Western pilots train on small piston aircraft and develop pilot skills. They later graduate to turbine equipment and get that airline job they all dream of. Pilots flying for Asian carriers, African and European carriers learn on jet fighters, perhaps, simulators, but they just don’t know the aircraft the way that western pilots do. A Qantas pilot buddy, when I asked details of the systems on the A380, replied “We’re trained to fly them, not fix them”.
      On the European aircraft, the pilot had the 100 hour copilot take the yoke while he (the pilot) picked up the operating manual to try to find an answer to the problem. What an idiot! He had someone with bare bones experience try to control the plane while the pilot thumbed through pages. Have you imagined anything as incompetent as that?

  • Andrew B


    Wow…that’s a big call from a plane maker that has recycled a 50 year airframe, who has convinced airlines that additional pilot training is not required and coerced airlines into thinking the MAX is the same plane as the NG.. oh except we forgot to tell pilots about MCAS..WTF Boeing!

  • G Farrance


    With a disgraceful comment about the pilots of the crashed aircraft that had serious faults, he should be sacked!! If the MAX was so good, why has it been grounded for over a year?
    Calhoun, you are a coward!!

    • PB


      You seem to not be a pilot. Had I been piloting the aircraft as soon as I observed an aberration I would have reached down to the center console and pulled the autopilot shutoff, and hand flown the aircraft.
      The European crash had the pilot hand control to the 100 hour total time copilot while he (the pilot) thumbed through the manual. He should have disconnected the autopilot and hand flown the aircraft and landed.
      Did Boeing screw up? Yes. But Southwest and American both had pilots who experienced this and they hand flew the plane.
      I agree with the Boeing CEO – had the crash pilots been competent they would be alive today.

  • manderson


    The new CEO obviously will not last long, he is too honest!! No machine is perfect which is why the pilots are sitting there.
    It is alarming the experience level many countries rush crews into positions they are not really ready for.

  • Pete Gardiner


    Since the majority of your aircraft sell into “third world countries” perhaps you should have put a bit more thought into who might be flying your aircraft instead of trying to stretch a 1960’s design just that little bit further !

  • Bernd


    omg, not sure if i should be scared or angry, maybe both. Sounds like Boeing got themselves a real cowboy at the helm. To question the integrity of all non American pilots like that is out of control. Does he not know how international minded Pilots are and operate. Is it not the manufacturers mandate to make sure that every person operating is fully endorsed on every aspect of an aircraft, – especially its weaknesses.

  • John Herrett


    By putting larger engines on the Max and moving them forward on the wings changed the aerodynamics of the aircraft. Changing the computer software alleviated the problem, until the computer failed.
    The question is, could the pilots have averted that problem by using the elevators? Or is there more involved?

    • PB


      John, the computer didn’t fail, the angle of attack indicator did. It stuck. The AOA tells the autopilot if there is an incorrect aircraft attitude and the autopilot attempts to correct it. As I stated above, had the pilot simply switched off the autopilot and hand flown the aircraft they would be alive today.

  • Don Mackie


    What a jerk. The aircraft was at fault not the pilots. I note even senior Boeing staff etc raised the issue and were ignored. To blame the lack of experience on the part of the “inferred” inferiior/less experienced pilots is buck shoving of the highest order. If this is the culture of the new leadership we will not see a company that learns from its lessons of its own history.

    • Marum


      @JOHN HERRETT. No John. The “Jacking Screws” used by the MCAS can exert much more force on the elevators than any two humans could.

      My response at that low altitude and in a potential overspeed (VNE) condition would be to call for 5 or 10 degrees flaps, and hope nothing fell off. (1. to slow the thing down. 2. To get a bit more lift.) At least being that low, would enable one to look out of the window and determine the aircraft’s attitude in relation to the ground. It would be obvious that the stall indication was false. Not only that, your artificial horizon instrument, would indicate that you were not in a stall (nose up) attitude.

      Fortuitously, adding flaps would have cancelled the MCAS.

      With climb-out power on, (90% + thrust) and a 40 degrees nose-down attitude at 2,000 feet is not recoverable in so large an aircraft. The pilots would only have a few seconds to react.

      EQUATION :
      Alt = 2,000+ feet
      Airspeed = 500+ knots
      Attitude = 40 degrees nose-down.
      Prognosis = 20- seconds to live.


  • Aries1470


    What an imbecile. At least the Indonesian asked and WANTED THE FLIGHT SIMULATOR OF WHICH BOEING REFUSED! Why? Because it showed up in the simulators that there was a problem! They wanted to keep the problem hidden even after the BOEING Pilots brought it up!
    In another instance, a crew was lucky that there was a 3rd pilot jump seating and was able to think outside the square and were able to bring the aircraft under control!
    Well, he won’t be able to take his $$$ with him to the other side.

  • David Bentley


    This was essentially a runaway stab trim situation which has been well undestood for decades. The new engine position was not a factor in the accidents as it only affected a small corner of the high/excessive AOA envelope.

    That MCAS triggered the uncommanded trim doesn’t change the procedure. Use the trim switches to set the correct incidence then isolate the stab trim drives.

    The Ethiopian pilots (and the preceding Lion Air crew before the accident crew ) both did this correctly (Preliminary report P 11) but for some reason the Ethipioan guys then turned the system back on causing it to run away again. GIGO. The high engine power setting remains a mystery


  • Marum


    Let’s get back to some basic flying. All high wing single engine monoplanes, tend to go nose-up under power, and nose-down when you cut power. Every Cessna, and similar aircraft do this. This does not make them inherently dangerous. Your training teaches you to cope.

    The first 737 (Little “Fat Freddy”) was a perfectly linear aircraft to fly. You pull the stick back with 5 lbs of force you get 5 degrees angle of climb, 10 lbs gets 10 degrees, 15 = 15. It had few, if any, vices.
    737 – 100 = Thrust 14,000 lbs; MRW = 97,000 lbs

    737 Max8 = Thrust = 28,000 lbs MRW = 181,000lbs.

    So. As you can see. It is a totally different aircraft. Also, the engines have been shifted forward of their original position. They also appear to point slightly upwards. The body is much longer. Thus the C.O.G. is different. Logically it would go nose up under high power. eg Climb-out 90%+ thrust. That’s what the MCAS is for, to make it handle like every other 737 ever made.

    Now. Redundancy is built into most aircraft. ie 2 magnetos, two spark plugs etc. The MCAS operated off only one sensor. Sensor faulty = MCAS malfunction. I believe there was a n option and a warning light available here, as an option.

    BOENG tried to save on recertification and complete pilot retraining. Thus Ward’s Law became activated. (Murphy was an optimist)

    Whoever signed off on this aircraft should go to jail, and their bosses. They are criminally culpable.


  • Murray Howlett


    This man sounds like he doesn’t “have anywhere near the experience” to be in control of a company like Boeing.

  • Geoffrey Farrance.


    The man is almost a criminal with accusations like that. Boeing’s engineers raise the fault and were ignored, isn’t that criminal?
    The Airline requested a simulator that had a faulty software and were fobbed off, isn’t that criminal?
    He should be sued for defamation to the amount the pilots of “Lion” and “Ethiopian” would have earnt in their flying career, plus interest.
    What a cowardly thing to come out with.

  • ArundelIR


    I am gobsmacked by the sheer arrogance of this guy. Boeing is not the company it once was. Whether its the hapless KC46, the enormous FOD and quality issues of the 787, or the dressing up of a 50 year old once great aircraft to compete with Airbus..it all comes back to the fact that America is a declining country, that has lost its moral compass. Boeing lost its moral compass when it switched Seattle for Chicago. Not to build great aircraft…but to manipulate the share price, pay themsleves ever bigger bonuses, and worst of all – ignore the engineers, pilots, and workers who are the guts of this companies, not the share manipulating shysters that now control it.

  • Marum


    FYI. I submit the following table to show ho risk-averse we have become.

    Boeing 737-100/200** 0.62 58.29M 36.43 …….50
    Boeing 737-300/400/500** 0.14 79.60M 10.99 .18
    Boeing 737-600/700/800/900 0.07 100.3M 7.10 ……..11
    Boeing 737 MAX 7/8/9/10 3.08 0.65M 2.00 ……………..2
    Boeing 737 (all models) 0.23 238.84M 56.5 ………80


  • Reed


    Dennis – Shut UP !!

  • Mark


    The designer of the 737 must have thought that such large engines on a 737 were dangerous ,as he designed the 757 to deal with this issue (Jack Steiner).

    But then again really the company is McDonnell who renamed themselves Boeing , who had a somewhat similar scenario with the DC10 .

  • Jabiru Joe


    The integrity of Boeing is suspect, VERY suspect. Quick $’s over lives. The land of the fast buck has an attitude generally that they are superior and everything they do is okay. Forget the rest of the world (most of them don’t even know there is a “rest of the world”). The gall, audacity, front, call it what you will, of Boeing to sell any aircraft knowing it has flaws is incomprehensible to most. On the subjet of pilot ability …..within various nationalities, some are brilliant, some you wouldn’t give a paper glider to. Some of the glider pilots just happen to be Americans as are some of the brilliant ones. All gets down to training and INFORMATION. Boeing please make note to self…provide information on how to operate this heavy flying thing.

  • john powers


    Totally unfair comment from the new CEO at Boeing about pilot competency
    Also likely to be a big win for Airbus sales in the future if he regularly insults his customer base. …If the B737 Max were an easy aeroplane to fly it would not have been grounded 12 months world wide ..

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