Beyond the Boeing 737 MAX: A Brief History of Aircraft Groundings

Jul 20, 2019

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The current grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX has stretched for months already, and airlines like American, United and Southwest continue to push back the date they expect these planes to be carrying passengers again. While Boeing says it’s confident that it can resolve the problem with the aircraft’s MCAS, the suspected root of the issue, there is no set timetable for when the company expects the plane to receive its certification to fly again.

In the history of aviation, the grounding of an entire fleet of an aircraft type is extremely rare, especially by any government or regulatory body. From time to time, however, airlines may choose to ground their own fleets for inspection. Such was the case with Qantas in 2008, when it grounded its fleet of Airbus A380s after an in-flight engine explosion caused severe damage to one of the aircraft.

Here are a few other notable groundings throughout history.

1954: The de Havilland Comet 1

The Comet was the very first commercial jet airliner to enter service. The first order for eight of the shiny new jets was placed by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BAOC). In 1953, a year to the day after the inaugural flight, a BOAC Comet departing Calcutta disintegrated at 10,000 feet just after takeoff. Eight months later another BOAC Comet broke up midflight at 26,000 feet; this time it was the plane that had been used for the inaugural flight that crashed.

UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 15: De Havilland 106 Comet 1 G-ALYP of BOAC, 19 De Havilland 106 Comet 1 G-ALYP of BOAC, 1952. At Hatfield. (Photo by Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images)
De Havilland 106 Comet 1 G-ALYP of BOAC. Photo by Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images

Following the second mid-air breakup, BOAC grounded its entire Comet fleet. The aircraft’s Airworthiness Certificate was eventually revoked by the UK authorities. An extensive investigation into the Comet by British aviation authorities found a design flaw in the aircraft. Repeated pressurizations of the cabin would lead to metal fatigue, which eventually would cause the fuselage to split open. The Comet 1 would never fly again. In 1958, the redesigned Comet 4 would take flight commercially, but fewer than 70 would ever see commercial service, according to The Smithsonian.

1979: McDonnell Douglas DC-10

The DC-10 was briefly grounded in 1979 for around a month following the crash of American Airlines Flight 191. The flight was departing Chicago O’Hare (ORD) headed to Los Angeles (LAX) when during take-off, the left-side engine separated from the wing, flipping back over the wing and landing on the runway. The separation of the engine from the wing caused damage to the hydraulic lines, and the loss of hydraulic pressure caused the wing’s leading edge slats — used to provide extra lift to the wings at low speeds during take-off and landings — to retract. The resulting crash killed everyone on board and two people on the ground.

With its left engine missing, American Airlines Flight 191 goes into a steep roll, then crashes in a burst of flames less than a mile away from the runway in 1979. These photos were taken by Michael Laughlin, 24, a student pilot who was on a layover in the O'Hare terminal when he witnessed the tragedy. (Michael Laughlin/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
With its left engine missing, American Airlines Flight 191 went into a steep roll before crashing in a burst of flames less than a mile away from the runway. These photos were taken by Michael Laughlin, 24, a student pilot who was on a layover in the O’Hare terminal when he witnessed the tragedy. (Michael Laughlin/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

Following the crash, the aircraft was grounded by emergency order of the FAA. An investigation found that maintenance procedures were to blame for the failure of a pylon where the engine was attached. The airlines were using a different method than the manufacturer had recommended to cut down on the time that it took to service the engines. The improvised procedure caused damage to the attachment point for the engine, which eventually failed. As a result of the incident the entire fleet was inspected and repaired.

2000: Concorde

The famous supersonic jet Concorde was grounded in 2000 following the crash of Air France flight 4590 that July. The crash killed all 100 passengers and nine crew members. Four people on the ground also were killed and six more suffered injuries when the jet crashed into a small hotel and restaurant in Goneese, a suburb of Paris, France.

Air France grounded its entire fleet immediately following the crash. British Airways, which was the only other airline to operate Concorde, would ground its own fleet the following month.

An Air France Concorde takes off, France, March, 1994. (Photo by Etienne DE MALGLAIVE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
An Air France Concorde. (Photo by Etienne DE MALGLAIVE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The investigation found that during its take-off roll the Concorde in question had struck a small metal strip on the runway. The impact of hitting the strip, which had fallen off a Continental Airlines DC-10, caused a left-side tire to blow. The tire explosion pierced the left-side fuel tank, which led to a fire on the jet’s left side. Both left side engines then failed during the attempted take-off, causing a loss of lift which the pilots were unable to recover from to safely land the plane.

Concorde resumed service in November 2001, but it would only fly for another two years before both Air France and British Airways retired their fleets.

2013: Boeing 787 Dreamliner

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was the pride of Boeing when it launched. The company had chosen to build an efficient aircraft from composite materials rather than take the approach of Airbus, with its super jumbo A380 that focused more on passenger capacity.

The Dreamliner was grounded for four months in 2013 after two separate onboard fires that January, related to the lithium ion batteries that Boeing had installed on the aircraft. The areas that house the batteries were redesigned for better fire suppression and management and the aircraft returned to service in April of 2013.

The A380 program is now officially dead, whereas the 787 program is (mostly) going strong.

2019: Boeing 737 MAX

Boeing’s latest aircraft to be grounded is, of course, the 737 MAX, following the crashes of a Lion Air and an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX. The current grounding revolves around the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was installed on the MAX to solve an engineering problem. When Boeing changed the design of the 737 to mount the engines farther forward for more efficient flying, it caused the plane to want to pitch up, which can lead to a stall of the aircraft in flight. The MCAS was supposed to pitch the nose of the aircraft down in this situation to avoid a stall.

It now appears that pilots were either unaware of the MCAS on the aircraft or, at best, not properly trained on the system and what it was designed to do.

Boeing is working to redesign the software system following the two accidents. Boeing remains confident that it will be able to solve the issues and have the aircraft return to service.

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Featured photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

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