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In late August, a cavalcade of 737 fuselages rolled into Renton, Washington, after arriving by rail from Wichita, Kansas. Each of the green-coated structures was marked with a number indicating the order in which they were built at Spirit AeroSystems. One of them, with stencil 8789 on its side, would snake its way through Boeing's factory in the late summer of 2023, becoming not just the focal point for another event in a series of acute safety crises for Boeing, but an explosive force for change within a company that has no equal in the US economy and only one real competitor in the world.
The Air Current has covered the manufacture and journey of aircraft 8789 all the way to N704AL, the Boeing 737 Max 9 that flew on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 and violently lost a connector exit at 14,830 feet over Oregon on January 5. carefully compiled. Many crucial facts are now known to the TAC. When fuselage 8789 arrived at the Boeing factory, there were four key bolts attached to the connector exit, each designed to prevent movement of the connector and the type of explosion that the NTSB suspects occurred aboard Flight 1282.
What comes next is the reconstruction of a mystery, including a sequence of events compiled through interviews with directly knowledgeable people and corroborated by people briefed on the situation, detailing a detailed series of high-quality missteps that characterize the life of 171 passengers and other people endanger Six crew members in danger. There is also a paper trail showing that the connector exit was opened late in Boeing's assembly process to secure adjacent rivets in the fuselage that were improperly installed by Spirit AeroSystems, which supplies 70% of every 737 to Boeing.
Related: The consequences for Boeing will go far beyond grounding the 737 Max 9
The Air Current has closely examined a purported report on what was going on at the factory, compiled by an alleged whistleblower as a hidden comment on a January 15 Leeham News blog post. TAC has not identified the whistleblower or the veracity of any allegations in that individual's detailed account. However, TAC's own independent reporting contained in this report confirms some aspects of this account and adds significant new facts. Only the points that we were able to independently confirm through our own reporting are listed here.
By the time fuselage 8798 arrived at Boeing's Renton factory, things were already not going well, according to many reports. Both Boeing and Spirit were struggling with problems with another Max sibling, the Max 8, which weeks earlier was found to have hundreds of incorrectly drilled holes in the rear pressure bulkheads – a story first reported by The Air Current. Unlike the later plug exit problem, which posed an acute safety risk, the aft pressure bulkhead did not pose the same immediate risk, although each individual element had to be analyzed or reworked before it could be delivered to airlines.
Renton Municipal Airport can be seen from above. The huge buildings on the edge of Lake Washington are the Boeing 737 Max wing production and three final assembly lines. Today the factory produces between 38 and 42 single-aisle aircraft each month.
As the 8789 went through its initial manufacturing inspections, Boeing employees discovered (and later repaired) loose fasteners at the right connector exit on August 31. It remains unclear how loose the parts were, but Boeing believed it was a defect. On the opposite side of the plane, next to the left connector that had failed on Alaska 1282, Boeing made another quality discovery.
Spirit's rivets in the fuselage structure immediately in front of the connector exit door frame were not installed correctly in five places and had to be reworked. While documenting the defects, the quality control report noted that four properly installed bolts were attached to the exit plug and prevented its movement.
On September 1, 8789 was loaded into Boeing's massive system installation tool and later transported by crane to the middle of three final assembly lines in Renton – the one least disrupted by inspections and rework of the 737 Max 8's aft pressure bulkheads in the factory. Spirit's warranty obligations for its product meant that the responsibility for attaching the rivets to 8789 fell to Spirit and its employees at the Boeing factory. The repair was delegated that same day to Spirit employees who had been present in Boeing's factories for years – either as direct employees or Spirit contractors – as well as representatives from other suppliers.
This is where the dysfunctional relationship between Boeing and Spirit manifests itself. The haggling over who is responsible for fixing problems that go all the way through to final assembly and who ultimately pays to fix any problems underscores the long-standing strategic tension between the two companies. Delegating these repairs, one person with knowledge of the matter said, adds both time and unnecessary complexity as Boeing factory workers wait for Spirit employees to plan and implement repairs, slowing the entire process under one roof.
Related: Inside the strained alliance between Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems
The following week, as 8789 moved along the centerline toward the massive hangar door overlooking the southern shore of Lake Washington, Spirit had its hands full as the required rivet repairs ended up in a long queue for the supplier, in the middle the Labor Day weekend holiday.
On September 7, it was discovered that the rivets in question had been overpainted and the underlying problem of their improper installation had not been corrected. It is not clear at this point who specifically painted over the rivets, but Boeing quality control sent the fasteners back for refinishing to Spirit, which itself subcontracts the work to company contractors rather than its own direct employees.
That same day, then-Spirit CEO Tom Gentile and Boeing CFO Brian West attended a Jefferies Co. investor conference to explain to investors what was going on with the inspections and rework on the aft pressure bulkheads, who had taken over factory operations at both companies.
“Let me just talk about quality in general,” said Gentile, who resigned later that month and was replaced by Spirit board member and former acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan. “We have a quality management system that actively and continuously looks for quality problems so that we can fix them and make our products higher quality and safer as a result.”
Another five days passed before the aircraft was finally assembled. On September 12, Boeing conducted a standard test of the aircraft to confirm its structural integrity and ability to pressurize safely. 8789 was passed successfully, TAC is informed. During this time, the damaged rivets remained unfixed and another five days passed while Boeing and Spirit planned a final fix.
The crucial moment, The Air Current has learned, came on Sept. 18, when Boeing opened the connector exit to allow Spirit employees access to fasten the rivets. Whether the plug was removed or just opened remains unknown. TAC understands that documentation would have been required to catalog this move only if it had been completely removed, but not if it had been broken open in standard maintenance mode.
TAC also understands that the repair also required a new door seal at the plug outlet to ensure safe pressurization. The significance of this is not fully known to the TAC, but may be relevant given the pressure anomalies experienced by N704AL in service on December 7, January 3 and January 4 – the day before the accident – and the final loss of pressure when the plug was opened occurred The exit was thrown into the night sky.
Regardless, the four key bolts securing the plug must be removed to either open or remove the 63-pound plug. The fate of the bolts remains central to understanding the cause of the explosive decompression aboard the Alaska 1282, according to the NTSB.
The rivets were fully secured the following day, September 19th. What happened next at the factory is not entirely clear, but is equally important in understanding the quality deficiencies that led to the accident and in Boeing CEO David Calhoun's direct admission that “quality flight” led to the accident on board Flight 1282 and triggered the grounding of the Max 9.
The now fully assembled aircraft 8789 was seen outside the Renton factory on October 8th and was later brought to the airline for its maiden flight on October 15th. The aircraft, still wearing the bare green coating that Spirit had applied during manufacture, returned to Renton to be painted in Alaska's corporate colors and officially designated N704AL. 8789 was flown again by Boeing on October 22 and twice by production test pilots in Alaska for the company's acceptance flights on October 27 and 28, and was officially delivered as N704AL on Halloween.
What followed next was fairly routine for Alaska. The aircraft was flown to Oakland International Airport, where the company has a maintenance base and routinely adds new aircraft to its fleet, as with the delivery of a Max 9 The Air Current just six weeks earlier. N704AL spent 11 days in California and was transferred to Orlando on November 11 for its first service to Portland.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, N704AL was transferred to Oklahoma City for the installation of its satellite Internet Wi-Fi system. In the days after the accident, AAR, which is tasked with installing the aircraft, said in a statement that the company's employees “did not perform any work on or near a mid-cabin door plug on this particular aircraft.” The aircraft returned to tax duty on December 7 with a flight from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska.
NTSB lead investigator John Lovell inspects N704AL in Portland following Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 in early January.
The aircraft operated without significant incident until the afternoon of January 5, when N704AL, operating as Alaska 1282, suffered its explosive decompression, precipitating this ongoing crisis.
A Boeing spokeswoman said: “As the aviation safety agency responsible for investigating this accident, only the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board can release information about the investigation.” As a company involved in this investigation, Boeing cannot and will not comment Refer to the NTSB for further information.”
Spirit declined to comment on the specific elements of this story, saying it was “precluded from providing information about the ongoing investigation in which it is actively involved.” As a company, we remain focused on the quality of every aircraft structure that leaves our facilities.”
The Federal Aviation Administration referred questions about the investigation to the NTSB, which declined to comment for this report.
Return to service and FAA ground deployment
The FAA and Boeing approved compliance measures on January 24 – 19 days after the accident – that now allow airlines to finally return their 737 Max 9s to service after detailed inspections. “We will continue to cooperate fully and transparently with the FAA and follow its direction as we take action to improve safety and quality at Boeing,” the plane maker said in a statement to TAC. “We will also work closely with our airline customers as they complete the necessary inspection procedures to safely return their 737-9 aircraft to service.”
Those customers – Alaska and United Airlines in the US – appear eager to get the planes back on their networks after weeks of delays and cancellations due to the groundings. Alaska said it plans to resume service with its Max 9s on Friday, Jan. 26, and with United a few days later on Jan. 28. Efforts that require removing the connector output include inspecting “specific screws and guides.” Rails and fittings,” according to the FAA.
Related: Supply chain fragility leads to decision for fourth 737 Max line
The scrutiny of Boeing by the FAA and NTSB remains extreme. In approving the resumption of flights, the FAA also announced it would halt Boeing's planned expansion of its 737 Max production lines in Everett, Washington, where its West Coast widebody aircraft assembly operations are located. That should begin in June and the FAA will force the plane maker to limit its production to 38 to 42 per month – the current level on its existing lines.
“Let me be clear: It will not be a return to normal for Boeing,” said FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker. “We will not approve any request from Boeing to expand production or authorize additional production lines for the 737 Max until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process have been resolved.”
Related: United CEO expresses support for Boeing, not necessarily its leadership
This comes in addition to previously announced investigations into the company's quality control and production efforts, which now include scheduled investigative hearings before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Whitaker said Wednesday that the agency has moved beyond the initial review of Boeing's production system to focus on specific, focused teams within its operations. “The quality assurance issues we have seen are unacceptable,” Whitaker said. “Therefore, we will have more troops on site to closely inspect and monitor production and manufacturing activities.”
Will Guisbond also contributed to this article.
Write to Jon Ostrower at [email protected]