Boeing 737 MAX Flight Makes Emergency Landing Just Weeks After Fatal Crash

A 737 MAX aircraft had to make an emergency landing shortly after takeoff yesterday. The aircraft, belonging to Southwest Airlines, was being moved to storage when the pilots reported a problem with the engine.

Southwest Airlines
The 737 MAX was being moved by Southwest Airlines. Photo: Southwest

If you thought you’d heard enough about the problems with the 737 MAX, we’re not done yet.

Just yesterday, a 737 MAX aircraft being moved to a storage location encountered a problem shortly after takeoff. The crew declared an emergency and the runway was cleared for an emergency landing.

Thankfully, no one was hurt in the incident and the plane landed safely. Here’s what happened:

Southwest Flight 8701

As part of their strategy to store as many MAX aircraft as possible in the pleasant environmental conditions of their Victorville storage spot, Southwest have been slowly moving their fleet there over the past week.

This was one such aircraft, which was travelling from Orlando to Victorville yesterday. Southwest Airlines Flight 8701 took off as normal at around 3pm, but just minutes into the flight, the pilots reported a problem.

“Tower, Southwest 8701 we just lost our right engine, need to declare an emergency.”

The emergency landing protocol was initiated, and the aircraft landed safely back in Orlando.

Of course, there were no passengers on board, but nonetheless the news has made headlines around the world. As a result, the aircraft is being sent to Southwest’s maintenance facility in Orlando for further inspection. The FAA will be investigating the cause of the failure too.

Was it the same problem yet again?

The cause of the engine failure will need to be determined by engineers, but on the face of it, it appears unrelated to the two recent fatal crashes involving the 737 MAX.

Both the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air incidents had some clear similarities in their nature. Both aircraft struggled to maintain speed and altitude immediately after takeoff, a problem that is being blamed on a fault with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

The MCAS is a safety feature installed on the 737 MAX range of aircraft. Due to the large size of the engines on the plane, it has a natural imbalance that could cause the nose to rise too sharply. In flight, this could cause a stall, which can be difficult to recover from.

To prevent this happening, the MCAS works with an ‘angle of attack’ sensor to ensure the upward angle of the aircraft doesn’t become too steep. Should it do so, the MCAS system automatically trims the nose down, in an effort to avoid a stall.

In both the recent fatal accidents, it is thought that this sensor gave a false reading. As a result, the MCAS forced the nose down unnecessarily, to disastrous consequences.

The emergency landing by Southwest Flight 8701 shows none of these characteristics. Crews simply reported an engine overheating, which could have been caused by anything; even a bird flying into the engine. We’ll have to wait for the final report for confirmation of this, but on the face of it, it appears to be unrelated.

Why are there still 737 MAX in the sky?

The FAA has grounded all 737 MAX aircraft pending a thorough investigation of the problem. However, this only bans the MAX from transporting passengers, not from being moved from one location to another.

Many airlines are moving their MAX into storage, as it’s cheaper than having them sitting taking up space at a commercial airport, and also ensures there is as little damage from the weather as possible. As such, there have been more MAX in the skies than you might think during this ban.

Boeing 737 MAX
The world’s Boeing 737 MAX fleet is currently grounded. Photo: Boeing

This might sound like a recipe for disaster. After all, if a MAX was to come down, God forbid, over mainland America, the loss of life from third parties on the ground could be huge. However, now that the fault is widely known, any pilot moving a MAX will already know how to fix it too. It’s a simple push of a button to stop the trim down procedure; such a shame it was not publicized better before.

Whether this incident is related or not, it’s terrible news for Boeing. With the FBI involved, mutterings of criminal investigations and speculation over the certification of the 737 MAX, this was another piece of bad publicity that the manufacturer really didn’t need right now.