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Flying Blind: The 737MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing, by Peter Robison

Vern Edwards

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The author, a journalist for Bloomberg, tells an unsettling and upsetting story about business and government, and he names a lot of names.

I want to take time to settle down and think it through before writing a review. All I will say now is that anyone who harbors idealistic notions about industry or government should read this book.

If you work for the FAA you should read the chapter entitled, "The Forrest Gumps."

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  • Vern Edwards changed the title to Flying Blind: The 737MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing, by Peter Robison

I read the extended introduction. Fascinating!  I ordered a copy for my son-in-law, who flies for United and who flew the MAX 9 before the fatal MAX8 crashes and the grounding. He also flew the McDonnell Douglas C-17 Globemaster III, the C5-B and, along with my daughter, flew Lockheed C-130 aircraft in the Air Force. I’ll read his copy next month when I go visit them. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks for the suggestion, Vern. I got around to reading this during the holidays. 

Once you get past the author's obvious ideological biases (Republicans bad, Democrats good! Capitalism bad, unions good!), the book does pose an interesting question: is more regulation good or bad? The author's answer is a resounding yes, but those of us who work in the Government contracting world may disagree - and some of us, vehemently. Safety regulations are one thing, but how do you execute that oversight successfully? Would greater vigilance by a better-staffed FAA actually have averted the 737MAX disasters? Possibly. It certainly couldn't have hurt. 

How much regulation is too much? And how are you going to staff accordingly? Is a "bigger" FAA the solution? I'm wary about quick and easy answers to complex systems, which the author seemed to reach fairly easily within a 262 page book about one company. The book seemed to veer straight into the well-worn concept that government oversight will cure all ills. To Vern's point above, if anything, it should make you question any idealistic notions one has about government (most people already question corporations/industry as it is).

The internal business pressures faced within Boeing that, in the author's opinion, led the company to cut corners on safety aren't unique. I'd hazard a guess there are similar pressures faced with many companies. To say that's the driving force behind two fatal crashes would be to overlook the more mundane causes (negligence being the greatest factor, in my opinion, with complacency and incompetence not far behind).  Unfortunately, those themes are prevalent everywhere in the business world, and I'm sure they existed even before the author began his beat at Boeing, contrary to the "good ol' days" sub-narrative. Again, how you mitigate those themes in an industry that literally holds people's lives in their hands is something that requires a more comprehensive investigation. 

Overall, it was a decent book with good details about the financial and cultural shifts at Boeing in the years leading up to the crashes. However, toward the end, the investigative narrative (which was compelling) lost steam before it drifted into the emotional, which unfortunately allowed the author a soapbox at the very end ("It would say Boeing got away with murder.") 

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@Mike TwardoskiI have a different take on the author's point of view. I don't think he thinks capitalism is bad, but that the style of capitalism practiced by Boeing in this late stage of its existence was bad. He greatly admired the Boeing that developed the B-17, the B-52, the 707, and the 747, among other aircraft. He despised the Boeing that came into being after its merger with Douglas Aircraft. The latter Boeing sacrificed engineering excellence, for which the company had been known, but which is expensive, to shareholder value, which demanded cost reductions. They took shortcuts and avoided regulatory controls that would have cost more money and might have cut sales. As a result, they sold an aircraft that caused more than 300 deaths and hurt the airlines that were their customers.

As someone who has flown more than 1,000,000 miles on many different aircraft, military and civilian (those days are over), and when I think of what it must have been like on the two aircraft that crashed for the passengers and crew in their last moments of life, I'm all for more regulation and better government.

Friends of mine who read the book, and who are very conservative, felt that the story reflected the decline of American capitalism.

I thought the book also reflected what I consider to be a general decline in the quality (but not the quantity) of American government, which has been on display over the last two years. 

I thought the book showed signs of hasty publication, and I found the author's style to be discursive without being especially entertaining or informative. I wonder what Michael Lewis would have done with the story.

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@Vern Edwards No doubt the author viewed the Boeing-Douglas merger as the focal point of the path to the crashes. I do, however, think he painted the political decision-making by whomever was in the Oval Office (Clinton's policies were good, those of Reagan, Bush 2, and Trump were bad) as blameworthy as well. The Trump bashing was a typical journalistic crutch, as well. It detracted from a truly compelling story. I would've liked to have seen more context on the merger. Obviously, we've seen plenty of mergers in the Government contracting world over the last 25 years, and I think a semi-deep dive into industry amid this environment would've been enlightening. 

Either way, the Government's relationship with Boeing post-merger was undeniably incestuous. In terms of that acquisition official who awarded billions in contracts only to be hired away by Boeing, it seemed to highlight the downright corruption that existed between both agencies. That particular story should be a huge spotlight on what you mentioned above: a decline in the quality, but not quantity, of American government. So I'm suspicious of any hypothesis that suggests more regulation is the antidote to bad regulation. 

Personally, it was difficult to read it without wearing my federal contracting lenses. Government contracting has become enormous, to the point in which it's easy to see how this tragedy developed. To me, that's the biggest issue at play. Corruption exists, to be sure, and some regulation is warranted. But how much? Many discussions on this board center on the monster that's the modern-day FAR. Do we need more of that? I'd argue no. I also say that I wish I had a solution to offer. I don't know what the answer is. 

Writing-wise, I wholeheartedly agree with you, Vern: Michael Lewis could've knocked this story out of the park! I'm actually amazed that someone who worked the Boeing beat could only offer semi-general perspectives and the occasional anecdotal story as he fleshed out the story. It was an interesting read either way, but I expected more from an "insider," at least in the journalistic sense. Maybe my expectations were too high :) 

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10 hours ago, Vern Edwards said:

I should add, as a warning, that I found the chapters about the two crashes very painful to read, especially the chapter about the crash in Ethiopia. The author pulled no punches.

Those were tough chapters, indeed. 

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9 minutes ago, Vern Edwards said:

@Mike TwardoskiWhat else are you reading, Mike?

That's a loaded question, @Vern Edwards :) 

Right now, I'm bouncing between Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond, by Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman and The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking, by Saifdean Ammous (Christmas present from my brother who's nudging me to invest in Bitcoin). Just about finished with the latter, so I have An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination, by Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang on deck.

Not too long ago, I revisited your Recommended Books for Government Contracting Professionals, so I have Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads by Joel Best in my queue at the library. 

By the way, the Recommended Reading discussion on this forum is easily my favorite, if only because it feeds into my insatiable need for reading more books. 

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@Mike TwardoskiGood list. I have the following on my book table:

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), by Graeber and Wengrow. Hot book right now. Controversial. Just started it. I love David Graeber, who died last year. He wrote The Utopia of Rules, a favorite book.

Air Wars: The Global Combat Between Airbus and Boeing (2021), by Scott Hamilton. (Inspired by guess what.) Haven't started yet.

The Socratic Method: A Practitioner's Handbook (2021), by Ward Farnsworth. Really about how to think. Wonderful, as are all of Farnsworth's books. On my second read.

The Great Mental Models, Vol. I, General Thinking Concepts (2019), by Farnam Street Media. Just browsed, so far. Quote: "The quality of your thinking depends on the models that are in your head."

Objectivity (2007), by Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison. A 418-page tome. I'll never finish it. But very interesting.

The Ministry for the Future (2020), by Kim Stanley Robinson. Scary science fiction about global warming. Good, but unnerving. Still reading.

Strong recommendation for fun: My wife and I recently had to take home Covid tests before going to a family-and-friends Christmas dinner and poker game. We laughed at ourselves for being nervous while waiting for the results. We passed, thank goodness, and the party was fun. Our nervousness about the test results reminded me of my all time favorite scary science fiction story, "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, first published in 1938. A study in paranoia. It was the basis for the Howard Hawks movie "The Thing From Another World" (1953), and "The Thing," the John Carpenter gore-fest of the 1980s. Both are cult films you can stream. Neither of them is as good as the story, but "The Thing From Another World" is great fun. Great dialogue. I've watched it a countless times. James Arness' first movie.

The story is available for free at several websites. I recommend the following site: 


It's also available as an audiobook.

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