Far From the Spotlight, a Boeing Partner Feels the Heat

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The top executive for commercial airplanes has been ousted. The chief executive last week endured withering questioning from members of Congress. Earnings are sharply down.

Boeing has been struggling through the biggest crisis in its history, after the deadly crashes of two 737 Max jets, the first just over a year ago off the coast of Indonesia.

Now, behind the scenes, scrutiny of the accidents has extended beyond the troubled aircraft manufacturer to a partner in the Max’s development, Collins Aerospace. The company, deeply rooted here in eastern Iowa, provided the software blamed in both crashes and built the plane’s flight deck displays.

Congressional investigators and lawyers representing family members of some of the 346 crash victims are asking what Collins knew about the Max’s problems, and when.

Collins has provided records about its work on the jet to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is examining the crashes. “Our investigation is ongoing and we still have a lot of work to do to fully understand how certain decisions were made and why specific technical problems emerged on the two 737 Max aircraft that crashed,” said Representative Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who is the committee’s chairman.

Collins also has handed over information to lawyers representing the families of some of the victims of the second crash, an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March. That information has not been made public. Lawyers for most of the remaining families suing over that crash said they, too, planned to name Collins as a defendant.

“It’s becoming clear that Collins played an important role, which wasn’t clear immediately after the accident,” said Justin Green, who represents many of the families.

Boeing has blamed the flight deck software supplier, without explicitly naming Collins, for a problem with an alert on the flight deck displays that, according to Indonesian investigators, might have helped prevent the first crash if it had been functioning properly.

In a statement, a Boeing spokesman said, “Boeing and Collins Aerospace are working side by side to update the Max software and safely return the fleet to service.”

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency were in Iowa last week, auditing the software updates that Boeing and Collins hope will persuade regulators to allow the Max to resume flying, both agencies said.

The heightened focus on Collins’s work highlights the scrutiny that can come from working with the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer. Another of the company’s Boeing collaborations, a critical system on a long-delayed plane for the Air Force, has been deemed deficient by Defense Department officials and come under review by the Government Accountability Office.

When Boeing announced in 2012 that Collins had edged out rivals to provide the flight deck displays for the 737 Max, then still in development, it was cause for celebration within both the company and the community. For Collins executives, it was also validation of a dramatic transformation the company had undertaken years earlier, in response to demands from Boeing, to do more with less.

But with the Max crashes now in the news almost daily, few executives or employees wanted to discuss their work on the plane when a reporter visited recently.

None would agree to be quoted by name, and some referred questions to Collins’s corporate parent, United Technologies, based in Connecticut. A spokeswoman for the parent company declined to comment and threatened unspecified legal action if Collins employees continued to be approached with questions about the Max.

Another company owned by United Technologies, Rosemount Aerospace, also has been pulled into the Max investigations because it made the sensors that allegedly provided faulty data, triggering the erroneous computer commands in the two crashes.

Courting Boeing’s Business

Collins’s relationship with Boeing has been a boon to Cedar Rapids, where Collins — known as Rockwell Collins until it was purchased last year — is the biggest employer, and aerospace engineering expertise is a point of communal pride. Boeing and its European rival Airbus are Collins’s largest customers, together accounting for about a third of all sales in recent years, according to company disclosures.

In this town of about 130,000 that offers “big-city amenities without the big-city hassle,” Mayor Brad Hart said, Collins provides thousands of high-paying jobs and buoys virtually every corner of the local economy.

“The economic impact in terms of salaries, spending power, taxes and homeownership is certainly the largest in our town,” said Mr. Hart, who expressed confidence that the Max crisis wouldn’t inflict lasting damage on a city that is still rebuilding after devastating floods in 2008.

Landing contracts for key systems on the Max cemented a relationship with Boeing that Collins had long cultivated, in part by creating what its chief executive in 2002 called an “enormous sea change in a very long legacy business.”

For years, the company had been “a technology leader, an innovator,” Clayton Jones, then the chief executive, told Fortune magazine. “Unfortunately, along the way they forgot to hone their financial skills.”

In 1998, Boeing executives summoned Mr. Jones to Seattle, he later recalled in a speech, and made clear that, to get more of Boeing’s business, Collins would have to cut prices dramatically. In response, Collins introduced what it called “lean electronics,” its take on a belt-tightening philosophy popularized by Toyota.

Collins reorganized business units and retrained managers, with an eye toward efficiency and speed. It pushed its suppliers to do the same, and established partnerships with companies such as HCL Technologies, which provides outsourced, lower-cost engineering services from India.

Along the way, Collins unseated Honeywell as the provider of flight control computers on a predecessor of the Max, the 737 NG, and supplied numerous systems for the Boeing 787, which went into operation in 2011.

When Collins secured the contract for the Max displays in 2012, it credited the belt-tightening. “There were a lot of cost-saving measures — a lot of tough decisions — that had to be made,” one manager said at the time in a company publication.

The display system is now at issue in both the congressional investigation and the private lawsuits.

After the first crash, of a Lion Air flight in October 2018 that killed all 189 people on board, Boeing told the F.A.A. that an alert it had intended to include as a standard feature on the flight deck displays would work only if airlines purchased an optional upgrade. Lion Air had not.

The alert had been standard on the Max’s predecessor since 2006. It was meant to notify pilots when two sensors differed substantially in their measurements of the plane’s angle relative to the wind.

Had the alert been working in the Lion Air plane, Indonesian investigators found, the pilots might have realized that the automated system that sent the plane into a dive had been erroneously activated.

Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief executive, acknowledged in a congressional hearing last week that his company had erred in its implementation of the alert. But Boeing has also said, without naming Collins, that the problem originated with an error by a software supplier.

Mr. DeFazio, however, said in a statement that documents reviewed by committee investigators showed that “Boeing officials were involved in and signed off on key decisions that involved developing” the alert “at nearly every turn.”

Collins did not respond to requests for comment.

‘This Kind of Design Is a No-Go’

Collins also had a hand in the development of the flight control software at the heart of the investigations into both the Lion Air crash and the Ethiopian Airlines flight in March that plummeted shortly after takeoff, killing 157 people.

In both accidents, the software, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, automatically moved part of the plane’s tail based on erroneous information from a faulty sensor, pushing the plane’s nose down.

Pilots, unaware that MCAS even existed because the manual did not mention it, struggled to diagnose the problem and were unable to counteract the software’s repeated commands.

In legal filings, Collins has acknowledged writing the software code but said it was merely executing Boeing’s design. Collins has denied making any errors in its work on the flight control computers.

In December 2016, just three months before the F.A.A. certified the Max, Collins documented a safety analysis of the flight control software, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report appended to the Indonesian investigators' findings.

One former Collins engineer said in an interview the MCAS design should have raised concerns at the aerospace company because it relied on just one sensor.

“This kind of design is a no-go,” said the engineer, who worked on flight controls but not on the Max, and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitivities surrounding the investigation.

Even on the Max’s predecessor, the 737 NG, the lack of redundancy presented challenges, according to a former Collins employee who worked on that plane’s flight control computers. For example, the engineer said, Boeing wanted software to help automate landings in low-visibility conditions — something that would often involve three computers comparing data to ensure reliability. But the 737 NG has only two, the engineer said, making it “much less tolerant to any failures.”

Because Boeing decided to update the 737 NG, rather than develop a new plane, much of the older model’s design was carried over to the Max.

Almost a decade before the Max crashes, another deadly accident highlighted the potential dangers of that aging design, according to aviation safety investigators.

In 2009, a 737 NG crashed near the airport in Amsterdam, killing nine people and injuring more than 100. An investigation by the Dutch Safety Board determined that a failed altitude sensor had activated an automated system in error, dramatically cutting the plane’s speed and causing it to stall.

That plane was an older model that did not use the Collins flight control computers. But when Dutch investigators tested the Collins computers used on later models, they found the same potential hazard — as well as a software flaw that could improperly trigger the system.

Years earlier, Collins had updated its software to compare readings from the plane’s two altitude sensors, rather than relying on just one, Dutch investigators found. But although the update was available in 2006, the F.A.A. didn’t require airlines to install it until after the 2009 crash.

Now, Boeing has proposed a similar fix for the Max. The updated software for MCAS will receive input from two sensors measuring the plane’s angle to the wind, rather than one, the company has said.

A Collaboration for the Air Force

Today, another Boeing-Collins collaboration is also facing difficulties. Boeing has faced sharp criticism for repeated delays in delivering the KC-46, a plane based on the frame of the 767 that is intended to replace many of the Air Force’s aging refueling tankers.

This year, the Air Force identified serious problems with the system of cameras and computers designed to allow the refueling equipment to be guided remotely, rather than manually from the rear of the plane. The images on the system’s displays were distorted under certain conditions, which could cause the refueling equipment to damage the aircraft — a particular concern for stealth planes because it could make them visible to radar.

Collins provided the remote refueling system and other systems on the tanker — technology that a Collins executive deemed “cutting-edge” in a 2017 news release, saying it “defies anything that’s previously been used for airborne refueling.”

In response to Air Force concerns, Boeing made changes to the system’s software, but officials determined they didn’t fully correct the problem, the Government Accountability Office found. Air Force officials have told the office that it could take three or four years for Boeing to fix the problem and that the solution is likely to include hardware changes — a more time-consuming and costlier fix than just updating software.

Now, regulators are faced with a similar decision about the 737 Max. The officials from the F.A.A. and its European counterpart who visited Cedar Rapids last week were unable to complete their audit of the Max’s updated flight control software, according to the American agency.

Regulators plan to return to eastern Iowa, an F.A.A. official said, to review additional documentation from Boeing and Collins as they determine when the Max might be allowed to return to the skies.

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