‘Downfall’: Not Boeing’s Finest Hour

Netflix documentary bares results of putting profits before safety

If you want proof that popularity has not made Netflix lazy and the streaming service is producing hard-hitting, topical films, you need look no further than the new documentary ‘Downfall: The Case Against Boeing’, directed by Rory Kennedy.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Downfall delves into the causes of the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max planes, Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, in October 2018 and March 2019, respectively, and explores the legal, financial, and personal aftermaths of the tragedies. A total of 346 victims, mostly Indonesians and Ethiopians but also including passengers from dozens of other nations, left behind devastated families. Boeing ended up paying $20 billion in settlements and grounded the 737 Max, though it has since regained the right to manufacture and sell the plane.

The documentary also examines in detail the history and culture of Boeing and asks how a corporation synonymous for so many years with safety and reliability could have come to make jets with flaws that led to the deaths of 346 souls and shook the world’s confidence in the industry.

The technical problems that caused the crashes are complex, and the documentary does a nice job of explaining things in layman’s terms. Many issues caused the disasters. But basically, the internal MCAS system of the 737 Max relied partly on small external sensors on both sides of the plane that were highly susceptible to damage and interference, even from something as light as a bird or a bit of debris. Once the sensors sustained damage or came off, the MCAS system quickly wanted to take over the flight and began to barrage the pilots with all manner of confusing and distracting signals. The plane fast became difficult to control. Even to watch a simulation of the beginning of the crash of one of the two flights, as presented in the documentary, is wrenching.

The portrait of Boeing that emerges in Downfall is not flattering. The documentary guides the viewer through a series of official statements and PR ploys that bluntly tried to pin the blame on pilot error rather than any flaws in the 737 Max. In other words: Don’t blame us, those Indonesians and Ethiopians didn’t know what the hell they were doing. But the documentary makes pretty clear that the pilots were competent and even the most experienced pilot would have a hard time in the crises that the system’s flaws brought about.

In Downfall’s telling, trouble set in back in August 1997, when Boeing merged with rival McDonnell Douglas. Corporate headquarters subsequently moved from Seattle to Chicago, and the culture of the merged firm grew unrecognizably different from that of the Boeing so many Americans had grown up with and respected. The push was always to hurry through inspections of systems and parts and to cut costs in myriad ways, not least by cutting back the number of inspectors who reviewed the work of assembly and maintenance teams.

Downfall’s portrayal of the callousness of Boeing executives, who kept making and selling the 737 Max even after the Lion Air Flight 610 tragedy when it was possible if not likely that more planes might crash for the same reasons, will turn your stomach.

How do we prevent this from happening again?

Airline crashes are not like other kinds of accidents. This documentary brings home the unique horror of a plane crash, in which hundreds of people go to their deaths because of an error or flaw that they did not cause and cannot fix. They are in a death trap. They may be highly intelligent and resourceful, but their fate is tied to whatever happens to the plane.

I’m no aviation expert, but I do wonder why commercial airlines don’t make parachutes available for situations where a plane is going down and there is no hope of pulling out of the tailspin.

In some online forums, people have addressed this very question, and the objection raised is that planes travel way too fast to bail out safely. But this is not the end of the discussion. If you had to choose between a risky option and all but certain death, which would you choose? And there are situations, as in the case of Lion Air Flight 610 which had only just taken off, where the plane is not going anywhere near its maximum cruising speed.

Look, for example, at the horrific events of March 24, 2015, in which a depressed co-pilot deliberately crashed a Germanwings plane into a mountain in the French Alps and killed all 150 people on board. It was a situation where you might well ask why the passengers did not have parachutes.

According to a BBC article on April 3, 2015, the plane had been descending, due to the disturbed co-pilot’s actions, for more than eight minutes before it crashed. If the passengers would have had easy access to parachutes, all of the men, women, and children had more than enough time to try to save themselves had the means been available to them.

In this and other scenarios, the presence of parachutes might save lives. Better some survivors than none at all. Better that the passengers should at least have a chance to save themselves than that they should be trapped on a doomed plane. But that is a discussion for the aviation experts to take up. In the meantime, be sure not to miss Downfall, which doesn’t pull punches and tells a gripping and tragic story of greed and malfeasance with none of the smarminess or self-indulgence of Michael Moore.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

2 thoughts on “‘Downfall’: Not Boeing’s Finest Hour

  • February 28, 2022 at 3:34 am
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    I’m still resentful of that time similarly racist tropes were used to suggest that being Korean was somehow a predictor for being more likely to die in a plane crash. It’s genuinely really disgusting how mainstream that idea is. Anything to avoid blaming corporate.

    Reply
    • February 28, 2022 at 10:45 am
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      Thanks for your comment. Honestly, I don’t think the Boeing executives’ response would have been very different if European crews were involved in the crashes. This is a story of irresponsibility and greed, not racism.

      Reply

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