This story was co-published with The New Yorker and is not subject to our Creative Commons license.
Samya Stumo liked to ride pigs. This was on her family’s farm, in Sheﬃeld, Massachusetts. Caring for the pigs was one of her chores, so she would hop on an old, dilapidated Army jeep and drive a water tank to the sty, where she would ﬁll the troughs and take a ride. She was 9 years old.
Samya had always been precocious. She started playing cello when she was 3, the year before her younger brother, Nels, became ill with cancer. When her mother, Nadia Milleron, returned from the hospital one day, Samya told her that she had learned to read.
Nels died, at the age of 2, shortly after Nadia had another son. The loss played a role in Samya’s eventual choice of studies: public health. So did the strain of activism in her family. Her mother’s uncle is Ralph Nader, the transportation-safety crusader turned progressive advocate and third-party presidential candidate. Her father, Michael Stumo, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, made frequent trips to Washington to lobby for small manufacturers and family farmers.
For Samya and her two surviving brothers, the family ethic was clear: seek justice for the disadvantaged, even if it means challenging authority. Samya could carry this to comic extremes. On a camping trip, she mounted a tree stump and inveighed against the family’s patriarchal dynamics, while everyone else, suppressing laughter, hurried to set up before dark.
In 2015, Samya graduated from the University of Massachusetts and won a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in global public health at the University of Copenhagen. Afterward, when she was 24, she got a job with ThinkWell, a nonproﬁt based in Washington, D.C., which works to expand health coverage in developing nations. ThinkWell sent her to East Africa to open oﬃces there. The night before she left, earlier this year, she had dinner with Ralph Nader and his sister Claire.
During a stopover in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Samya texted her family to say that she would arrive in Nairobi in a few hours. Then she boarded Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. She sat in Row 16, beside a Somali-American trucker from Minnesota. There were 149 passengers, from 35 countries, and eight crew members.
The plane, a Boeing 737 MAX 8, took oﬀ at 8:38 a.m. on March 10. A minute and a half later, it began to pitch downward. A sensor on the nose had malfunctioned, triggering an automated control system. The cockpit ﬁlled with a confusing array of audio and visual warnings. The pilots tried to counter the downward movement, but the automated system overrode them. Six minutes after takeoﬀ, the plane dived into the earth at 575 miles per hour, carving out a crater 32 feet deep and 131 feet long, and killing everyone on board.
That day, Stumo, Milleron and their younger son, Torleif, ﬂew to Addis Ababa. The crater had been cordoned oﬀ, but Milleron and Tor rushed past the barrier. “It was mostly dirt,” Stumo said later. “Where’s the plane? Where’s the pieces? This plane had just buried itself right straight into the ground vertically and just disintegrated.”
This was the second crash of a 737 MAX in ﬁve months, after a Lion Air jet plunged into the Java Sea in late October 2018. Investigators quickly focused on the automated system that had pushed down both jets, a feature new to this model of the 737. But a counternarrative gained force, too: that the crashes were, above all, the fault of insuﬃciently trained foreign pilots. “Procedures were not completely followed,” Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, said at a contentious news conference in April.
It has been more than a decade since a commercial airline crash in the United States resulted in fatalities, but airplane disasters are an unwelcome reminder of the inherent risk of ﬂying. Some 2.7 million people ﬂy on U.S. airlines every day; we’d rather not think about the brazenness of launching ourselves thousands of miles in a fragile tube, 30,000 feet above the earth. The appeal of blaming foreign pilots is easy to see. For the past eight months, however, the Stumo family has dedicated itself to demonstrating a scarier reality: that Boeing, the pride of American manufacturing, prioritized ﬁnancial gain over safety, with the federal government as a collaborator.
Since the crash, the family members have made more than a dozen trips to Washington — a routine they expect to continue: They recently found an apartment in town. They have met separately with two dozen members of Congress, and with the heads of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, and testiﬁed before a House committee. They were the ﬁrst American family to sue Boeing, accusing the company of gross negligence and recklessness. They have sought out whistle-blowers and ﬁled Freedom of Information requests. They got a meeting for themselves and 11 other victims’ families with Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation. Afterward, they held a large vigil outside the department’s headquarters. When the vigil broke up, I talked with Gregory Travis, a software engineer and pilot who has written extensively about the crashes. “Every past crash that I can think of was an accident, in that there was something that wasn’t really reasonably foreseeable,” Travis told me. “This was entirely diﬀerent, and I don’t think anyone understands that. This was a collision of deregulation and Wall Street, and the tragic thing is that it was tragic. It was inevitable.”
I met the Stumos in 1996, in Winsted, a former mill town of 8,000 people in northwest Connecticut. After emigrating from Lebanon in the 1920s, Milleron’s grandfather opened a restaurant there. Her grandmother, Ralph Nader’s mother, lived in the town until her death, in 2006, at 99. Nader still visits from Washington, and his family funds two activists to monitor local aﬀairs and bend them in a progressive direction.
Milleron and Stumo met in law school, at the University of Iowa, and afterward settled in Winsted, moving into a house on Hillside Avenue and starting a family. First Adnaan, then Samya, then Nels. They began attending an Orthodox Christian church in a nearby town. Nadia worked part time, as a court-appointed lawyer. Michael commuted 25 miles to a Hartford law ﬁrm, and joined the Winsted school board.
I came to Winsted for my ﬁrst job, at the Winsted Journal, a weekly paper. At the ﬁrst school board meeting I covered, Michael arrived late from Hartford. He was wearing a suit that hung loosely on his lanky 6-foot-1-inch frame. He carried a briefcase. He was only 29, but he looked every bit the engaged citizen and responsible father.
Michael and I met a few times at a gloomy bar on Main Street, where he oﬀered a wry perspective on Winsted politics and the plight of small-town America. He invited me over for breakfast. I remember warm sunlight, pancakes, small kids and being impressed by Nadia, a tall woman with long, dark hair and an intently appraising gaze.
I was soon gone from Winsted, to a daily paper near Hartford. In 1999, after the birth of Tor and the death of Nels, the Stumo family bought a ramshackle 18th-century house on a farm, over the Massachusetts line. It had been owned by sheep farmers who published a magazine called The Shepherd; old issues were strewn about the house, and manure was piled 4 feet high in the barn. Michael worked for months cleaning the house and clearing out the barn with a tractor.
A year later, Nader ran for president as a member of the Green Party. He had made his name in auto safety. In 1965, when he was 31, he published “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a book that focused on the Chevrolet Corvair, which he said had prioritized “stylistic pornography over engineering integrity.” The book contrasted the negligent safety standards of automobiles with the approach of airlines, in which safety was encouraged by market reality. “Plane crashes ... jeopardize the attraction of ﬂying for potential passengers and therefore strike at the heart of the air transport economy,” he wrote. “They motivate preventative eﬀorts.”
A few months later, Nader testiﬁed before Congress. His performance made his book a best-seller and spurred consumers to abandon the Corvair. Improvements in car safety sparked by his revelations contributed to a decadeslong decline in highway fatalities. In 1971, Nader founded Public Citizen, a nonproﬁt that expanded his crusades to campaign ﬁnance, health care and renewable energy. In the eyes of many, he became an unimpeachable advocate for the common good.
Nader ran for president in 1996, but his impact was negligible. In 2000, he tried again, tapping into dissatisfaction with Al Gore, the Democratic candidate. “Corporations were designed to be our servants, not our masters,” Nader declared at a rally at Madison Square Garden attended by 15,000 people. He got onto the ballot in 43 states and received nearly 3 million votes. Many of his former admirers turned against him, however, regarding him as a spoiler. In Florida, which George W. Bush won by 537 votes, Nader received 97,488 votes.
Michael Stumo bought 200 pigs to raise without antibiotics, but they got sick, the farm was quarantined and he was forced to sell them at a loss. Nadia, who raised poultry, managed better, selling 300 chickens and 60 turkeys one year. But her main focus was the children, whom she home-schooled and drove to far-ﬂung music lessons and to church. When, at 14, Samya felt that she needed a more challenging academic program, Nadia drove her to an early-college program at Mary Baldwin University in Virginia.
Michael rented out part of their land and started spending more time on the issues we’d talked about in Winsted. He developed ideas for antitrust and trade policy, and in 2007 he helped found the Coalition for a Prosperous America, to ﬁght for small farmers and manufacturers — “producers,” he called them — against large foreign rivals.
With backing from farmers, unions and manufacturers, he became a lobbyist. On one of his trips to Washington, I met him in a House cafeteria, where he was fresh from a short-lived win on trade policy. He ﬂashed a gap-toothed smile, unselfconscious about wearing a dress shirt tucked into shorts.
One of the coalition’s board members was Stan Sorscher, an engineer at Boeing and an oﬃcial of the engineers’ union. Boeing was far larger than the small companies Michael advocated for, but he viewed it as a sort of “national champion” that the country should have more of. At a time when many U.S. manufacturers were losing market share to global rivals, Boeing was the country’s largest exporter.
But the company was in tremendous ﬂux. When Sorscher ﬁrst went to work there, in 1980, after earning a doctorate in physics, he marveled at its culture, which emphasized quality improvement and communication. Managers held regular meetings for engineers to address problems; engineers worked directly with suppliers; teams shared resources, knowing that the gesture would be reciprocated. The planes that Boeing was developing — such as the 777, its ﬁrst jet to use signiﬁcant computer controls — were a success, with few problems after launch.
In December 1996, Boeing announced that it was buying a struggling rival, McDonnell Douglas, for $13 billion. Sorscher is one of many Boeing employees who have identiﬁed the merger as the moment when Boeing went from being led by engineers to being led by business executives driven by stock performance.
Sorscher recalled a labor-management breakfast, shortly before the merger, at which a top Boeing executive said that the company would reduce spending on a program that employed engineers to ﬁnd improvements in the process of making planes. Sorscher, a member of the union’s bargaining unit at the time, pointed out how much money process improvement was saving the company.
The executive tipped his head back, as if thinking how best to explain basic economics to a clueless scientist. Finally, as Sorscher recalled, the executive said, “The decisions I make have more inﬂuence over outcomes than all the decisions you make.” Sorscher told me, “It was: ‘I can’t help but make a billion dollars every time I pick up the phone. You people do things that save $400,000, that take one shift out of ﬂow time — who gives a crap?’”
Three years later, the engineers’ union went on strike over bonus pay and cuts in health coverage. James Dagnon, another Boeing executive, said that engineers had to accept that they were no longer the center of the universe. “We laughed,” Sorscher recalled. “This is an engineering company — these are complex, heavily engineered products. Of course we’re the center of the universe. But he wasn’t kidding. We didn’t get it. Who is the center of the universe? It’s the executives.”
In 2002, Sorscher, who had started working for the union full time, made his case to a Wall Street analyst in Seattle, arguing that bottom-line business models did not apply to building airplanes. The analyst cut him oﬀ. “You think you’re diﬀerent,” he said, according to Sorscher. “This business model works for everyone. It works for ladies’ garments, for running shoes, for hard drives, for integrated circuits, and it will work for you.”
Taken aback, Sorscher said: “Let’s build an airliner with this business model. If it works, you and everyone who looks like you will be happy. And if I’m right, then we’ll all be very unhappy.”
In the spring of 2004, Boeing started designing the 787 Dreamliner, a 330-passenger jet. The following year, the company named a new CEO, Jim McNerney, a Harvard MBA who had worked at Procter & Gamble, McKinsey, General Electric and 3M. According to Sorscher, under McNerney engineers were discouraged from voicing concerns. “What we heard 5,000 times was ‘Follow the plan,’” Sorscher said. “‘Your job is to follow the plan, and if you can’t follow the plan we’ll ﬁre you and get someone to follow the plan.’”
By the time the 787 was ready, in 2011, the program was three years late and tens of billions of dollars over budget. A year later, after the airplanes’ batteries displayed a tendency to catch ﬁre, the ﬂeet was grounded for three months.
Nonetheless, the company’s ﬁnances thrived. Between 2005 and 2015, the share price more than doubled, owing in part to Boeing’s aggressive repurchasing of its own stock. “The company has developed fail-safe systems for smoothing earnings, beating expectations and jacking up demand for its shares with a precision that rivals any jet that rolled oﬀ the assembly line in Boeing’s heyday,” Maureen Tkacik wrote recently in The New Republic. Between 2013 and 2019, Boeing paid out $17.4 billion in dividends, more than 40% of its proﬁts. In his last three years as CEO, McNerney received $80 million.
Despite the stock rise, Richard Aboulaﬁa, a prominent industry analyst, had misgivings. In his January 2013 newsletter, after an earnings call, he fretted about Boeing’s unwillingness to learn from the Dreamliner problems. “There was no contrition or soul-searching on the call about how the 787 could have gone this wrong,” he wrote. “Instead, the call emphasized some impressive sales and proﬁt numbers. It was like a farmer showing oﬀ a great crop, but not mentioning that the tractor just broke, he ﬁred the mechanic, and outsourced tractor maintenance to Bolivia.”
The government used to provide a counterweight to corporations that compromised safety. Owing in great part to the activism of Nader and his allies, in the late ’60s and early ’70s agencies such as the National Highway Traﬃc Safety Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission were founded to protect citizens.
As early as 1971, however, there was a backlash. That year, Lewis Powell, prior to serving on the Supreme Court, wrote a memo calling on corporations to more aggressively ﬁght regulations. He singled Nader out as a threat, “a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans.” Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, mocked what he considered to be overbearing regulators: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Corporations portrayed tort lawyers as ambulance chasers seeking to make a buck through frivolous litigation.
By the early ’90s, it was plain to Nader that the government was failing to regulate air safety. In “Collision Course,” a book that he co-wrote with Wesley J. Smith, they warned, “It is an unfortunate fact that government oversight and enforcement is so underfunded and understaﬀed that regulators and inspectors must rely upon the integrity and good faith of those they regulate to obey the rules.” They continued, “If a company is determined to cut corners, there is every likelihood that it will succeed, at least for a while.”
The book was published in 1993. A decade later, Boeing lobbyists began pushing for a wholesale shift in regulatory oversight. For years, the FAA had deployed “designated engineering representatives,” who were based at manufacturers and certiﬁed the safety of aircraft under development. The DERs were typically employed by manufacturers, but they were selected by and reported to the FAA.
In 2005, embracing the deregulatory agenda promoted by the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress, the FAA changed to a model called Organization Designation Authorization. Manufacturers would now select and supervise the safety monitors. If the monitors saw something amiss, they would raise the issue with their managers rather than with the FAA. By sparing manufacturers the necessity of awaiting word from the FAA, proponents of the change argued, the aviation industry could save $25 billion in the next decade.
At a meeting on the new process, Sorscher said, “This is just designed for undue inﬂuence,” he recalled. “‘No, no, no,’ they said. ‘This will work.’ ‘How will this work?’ I said. ‘We have good people,’ they said. I said, ‘Good people in a bad system is still a bad system.’”
Marc Ronell, who began working in the FAA’s Boston oﬃce after the change, told me that he raised concerns with his manager, saying: “We’re paid by taxpayers to protect the public. If we’re not protecting the public, who is?” The response, he said, was: “It’s really Congress’ responsibility. Our job is to serve the customer” — the company. Ronell, who has a Ph.D. in computer science and engineering, was also disconcerted by many FAA engineers’ inexperience in vetting ﬂight-control software. To train engineers lacking a computer-science background, the FAA sends them to a two-week session in Oklahoma City. “You can’t substitute a two-week course for a four-year degree,” Ronell said.
In 2009, the FAA created the Boeing Aviation Safety Oversight Oﬃce, a 40-person bureau in Seattle dedicated to serving Boeing, led by an employee named Ali Bahrami. Four years later, Bahrami left the FAA to take a job with the Aerospace Industries Association, which lobbies for Boeing and other manufacturers.
According to a veteran FAA engineer in Seattle, there has been constant pressure from FAA managers to delegate oversight of plane development to Boeing. “The FAA will tell you we do risk-based resource targeting, that we put our resources where there’s the most risk,” he told me. “That’s not true. The biggest focus is Boeing’s schedule.”
On Oct. 28, 2018, a 737 MAX 8 ﬂown by Lion Air took oﬀ from Bali, Indonesia, bound for Jakarta, Indonesia. Less than six minutes into the ﬂight, a cockpit alert signaled an impending stall; the plane’s software directed the ﬂight controls to point the nose downward. This adjustment occurred three times in close succession, but, each time, the crew, which included an oﬀ-duty pilot oﬀering assistance, managed to override it. The ﬂight made it safely to Jakarta.
The next day, the same plane, with 181 passengers and a new crew, took oﬀ from Jakarta. Almost immediately, the control column began shaking violently, a warning that the plane gives when it’s at risk of stalling. About three minutes into the ﬂight, the automated controls kicked in, and the plane dropped 700 feet. The pilot, Bhavye Suneja, and his co-pilot, Harvino, repeatedly tried to lift the nose by holding down the switch that adjusted the stabilizer on the tail of the plane, but after 10 seconds the automated controls kicked in again, driving the nose back down. They pulled frantically on the control column, but, 12 minutes into the ﬂight, the plane dropped 5,000 feet at 450 miles per hour into the Java Sea.
Boeing had conceived the 737 MAX in 2011. That spring, American Airlines told Boeing that it was on the verge of abandoning the older model of the 737, which had debuted in 1967 and undergone multiple updates, for Airbus’ A320neo, which was more fuel-eﬃcient. Boeing had been considering building an entirely new jet, but it could take a decade to design a new plane and get it through the full FAA certiﬁcation process. Airlines would also be required to train their crews on the new planes. Desperate to retain American, Boeing chose instead to overhaul the 737.
Updating the plane introduced some engineering diﬃculties. The new model had larger engines, and it was hard to ﬁnd room for them on the low-slung 737. Boeing decided to place the engines farther forward, just in front of the wing. The new position, and the greater thrust of the engines, produced an aerodynamic challenge during a maneuver called a windup turn — a steep, banked spiral that brings a plane to the point of stall, which is required for safety tests, though it’s rarely used in typical ﬂying. “On most airplanes, as you approach stall you can feel it,” a veteran pilot for a U.S. commercial carrier told me. Instead of the steadily increasing force on the control column that pilots were used to feeling — and that FAA guidelines required — the new engines caused a loosening sensation.
To correct this, Boeing settled on a software feature called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. As the nose of the jet approached a high angle, suggesting an oncoming stall, MCAS would adjust the stabilizer on the plane’s tail, pushing the nose down, to alleviate the slackness in the control column. “They were trying to make it feel the same, so the pilots wouldn’t require training,” the pilot said. Boeing had gone so far as to promise to pay Southwest, which ﬂies 737s almost exclusively, a million dollars per plane if training on a simulator was found to be necessary.
Boeing considered the MCAS feature to be so minor that it removed mention of it from the 737 MAX’s pilot manual. This meant that the Lion Air pilots had no idea why their plane kept forcing itself downward: an angle-of-attack sensor on the jet’s nose had malfunctioned, mistakenly signaling that the plane was nearing a stall and leading MCAS to continually push the nose down — 21 times in all.
Nine days after the Lion Air crash, the FAA issued an “airworthiness directive,” requiring an update of the 737 MAX’s ﬂight-operations manual. Boeing instructed pilots to deal with excessive downward pitching by following the procedure for “runaway trim” — the term for when the system that controls the angle of the stabilizer malfunctions. The FAA agreed that this notice would suﬃce while Boeing came up with a software ﬁx for MCAS, which it indicated would take about six weeks.
But Boeing seemed to believe that pilot error had caused the crash. In its response to an initial Indonesian government report, it highlighted the contrasting reactions of the crew on the doomed ﬂight and the crew the day before, saying that the pilots on the second day had not followed the standard “runaway trim” procedures.
One of Boeing’s senior executives for sales in Southeast Asia at the time of the crash told me that, at the company, the word was that the crash had been caused by pilot error. Sales for the 737 MAX remained strong, and none of his customers were asking him about pilot training to address MCAS. “There was nothing I was concerned about at that point in time,” he said. “The stock was holding up OK.”
On Dec. 17, less than two months after the Lion Air crash, Boeing’s board of directors approved a 20% increase in the company dividend and a $20 billion stock repurchase program, allowing Muilenburg, who had replaced McNerney as CEO in 2015, to carry out even larger buybacks than in previous years. The board also awarded Muilenburg a $13 million bonus.
On March 10, in the early hours of the morning, Nadia Milleron was at the farmhouse taking care of Tor, who had a stomach virus. She turned on BBC Radio and heard that there had been an airplane crash in Ethiopia.
Samya’s boyfriend, Mike Snavely, was on the night shift at a San Francisco hospital, where he was doing his residency. He got a news alert on his phone. Adnaan, Samya’s older brother, was in New Zealand, working construction, his latest stop in a young adulthood that had included hitchhiking to Alaska and sailing across the Atlantic in a 36-foot boat.
The three of them rushed to ﬁnd which ﬂight Samya was on. Only after they reached Samya’s boss at ThinkWell did Nadia wake Michael. “These things always happened to other people,” Michael told me. “I thought, That can’t be, and found out that it was.”
Three days later, Ralph Nader appeared on “Democracy Now,” the progressive news program. Nader, who is 85 years old, talked about all the good that Samya would have done for the world. “It was her ﬁrst trip under her new job to Africa,” he said. “Very enthusiastic. And she got to Addis Ababa and boarded this” — he paused — “killer plane, the MAX, 737 MAX 8.”
In Seattle, Stan Sorscher got a text from Michael, who was writing to let the board of the Coalition for a Prosperous America know that he would miss the annual trade conference. He was going to Ethiopia, he told them, to collect his daughter’s body.
After the family got to the crash site, it settled for less. “It’s a beautiful place,” Michael said, at a memorial service held at the family farm. “It’s on a rolling high plateau with beautiful vistas and views, hawks everywhere, local agriculture, people plowing with cattle and a single-bottom plow. And the Ethiopian people are beautiful — Nadia and Tor were really at peace at that site. Samya loved East Africa, she loved agriculture, she loved the people.”
Three weeks after the crash, Michael, Nadia and Adnaan ﬂew to Chicago, where Boeing has its headquarters, to ﬁle a lawsuit against the company in U.S. District Court. All of the more than 350 737 MAX planes had been grounded, worldwide, but U.S. regulators were sending signals that they would move quickly to get them back in the air. An FAA board proposed that future pilot training be done via iPads. The agency was allowing only 14 days for comments on the proposal. Along with a half-dozen other families, the Stumos submitted a letter, complaining that this was not enough time to mount a proper response, and the comment period was extended to 30 days.
Boeing was desperate to get the 737 MAX ﬂying again — there were more than 5,000 planes on back order, with dozens coming oﬀ the assembly line every month. Muilenburg vowed to make “safe airplanes even safer.” The Stumos saw it as their mission to determine with certainty that the MAX was safe — even if it meant training pilots on simulators and putting the plane through full FAA certiﬁcation, a process that could last several years. But these were short-term ﬁxes. To prevent future disasters, their goal was to strengthen the regulatory oversight that had atrophied over time.
In early June, Nadia and her brother, Tarek Milleron, ﬂew to Washington, where Michael had secured meetings with the leadership of the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board. I accompanied them to an apartment in Northwest Washington to pick up Paul Njoroge, a 35-year-old Kenyan Canadian banker who had lost his entire family in the crash: his wife, their three young children and her mother. The Stumos had been trying to reach victims’ families around the world, and Njoroge was among the ﬁrst to respond. A trim, handsome man, he stood uncertainly in the apartment. He wore a dark suit and looked both well put-together and utterly at a loss.
We drove downtown to a WeWork building, where we met Michael, and discussed the day ahead. They agreed that Paul, who was especially angry about eﬀorts to blame foreign pilots for the crashes, would be the one to confront FAA oﬃcials on the issue. Paul said that he preferred not to go on about the enormity of his loss, because he worried that the oﬃcials’ expressions of sympathy would allow them to ﬁlibuster away the meeting.
Nadia had every intention of talking about the loss of her daughter. She said that she would tell them “what I experience over and over again during the day, where I think about her fear and terror.”
Paul said that he understood, but Nadia wasn’t done: “And then I want to say that this body that was perfectly healthy was broken into small bits that we don’t even have in one place, and that I am overwhelmed by my grief.”
Again Paul tried to agree, but she pressed on: “And I want to say: ‘Why didn’t you protect us? Why, with all the resources of the United States, didn’t you make sure that the plane my daughter was ﬂying in was adequate to ﬂy?’”
The meeting at the FAA left them frustrated. The agency’s interim chief at the time, Daniel Elwell, refused to pledge to ground the 737 MAX until all investigations had been completed, and he equivocated on whether simulator training would be required for pilots. But, after the meeting at the NTSB, they left satisﬁed that the agency’s report on the crashes would be rigorous and grateful for a level of empathy they felt had been lacking at the FAA meeting.
Michael caught a plane to Chicago, while the rest of us headed to Ralph Nader’s oﬃce, on P Street. Nader oﬀered Njoroge one of the “AXE the MAX” pins he had designed, urging a boycott of the plane.
“Khali Ralph,” Milleron said, using the Arabic term for maternal uncle. “Paul is new to advocacy and trying to make things better and right in aviation safety, for sure, but he is looking for your inspiration for how to be eﬀective.”
“That is the only thing that can motivate me today,” Njoroge said. “Because, after this happens, I start asking myself, What is the essence of life? And I ﬁnd myself very demotivated. What am I going to do with my life?”
“Is this your entire family?” Nader said.
“Yes, my entire family.”
The man who had taken to Capitol Hill a half century earlier advised, “You have a few months of opportunity — because of your loss — that very few people have to get in the door. Door after door after door.” Nader continued, “That requires study. You have to study the committees — who they are, all that.”
“You’ll see who is slowing down the hearings, who wants to push the hearings, who they want to testify, who they don’t want to testify,” Nader said. “I would suggest you make this ...” He searched for the right word. “This is the one that took your family,” he said. “You can learn all the players. All the variables.” He suggested that Njoroge get the congressional handbook, which lists the members of Congress and their committees.
There was some pathos in Nader’s insights on Congress, which dated to another era, when committees wielded more power, when staﬀ had more expertise, when members displayed more independence. His advice was infused with an idealism bordering on nostalgia: This is how one would take one’s cause to Congress, if Congress still functioned as it should.
The Stumos returned to Washington a month later, for a hearing before the House aviation subcommittee. They had attended two previous hearings, holding a large poster with photographs of dozens of the Ethiopian Airlines victims. This was the ﬁrst time they were allowed to testify. As the hearing was about to begin, Boeing announced that it was setting aside $50 million to help victims’ families, which the Stumos felt was a transparent attempt to preempt the hearings.
At Michael’s urging, Njoroge led oﬀ the testimony, memorializing his ﬁve lost family members. Michael, who had testiﬁed at congressional hearings before, handled the committee’s questions with ease. At one point, he sketched out what future hearings on the 737 MAX should include. “Any whistle-blowers who may have been ﬁred, and maybe have a gag order pursuant to a settlement — who have complained about safety issues with regard to the 737 MAX — should be called to testify, with protective subpoenas, so the public can hear what they have to say,” he told the subcommittee. “The aviation software writers — do they have the same level of engineering safety culture as regular aviation engineers?”
Michael’s restrained, lawyerly tone reminded me of something he had told me weeks earlier about the many meetings that he and Nadia had been having with members of Congress: “Nadia would pound them over the head. I’m a little more Iowa about it.”
A week later, Ali Bahrami, who in 2017 left lobbying to return to the FAA as its chief of aviation safety, appeared at a Senate hearing. The Wall Street Journal had just reported that the FAA had determined, after the Lion Air crash, that there was a high risk of another 737 MAX emergency within the next 10 months, but had decided to allow Boeing to proceed with its software ﬁx without grounding the planes. Bahrami said, “From the safety perspective, we felt strongly that what we did was adequate.”
Nadia was furious. At midnight, she and Tor started making signs — one read “FAA gambled 10 months and lost 346 lives.” At 2 a.m., they got into the car and drove to Washington. When they arrived at the FAA, a Homeland Security oﬃcer refused to let them enter. Eventually, they were called in to meet with Bahrami. As Tor related in a recording that he made immediately afterward, they asked Bahrami what he thought he could have done to prevent the Ethiopia crash. Bahrami said that there was nothing he could have done. (Bahrami does not recall saying this.) “I can tell you what you should’ve done,” Tor told him. “You should have grounded the plane after the Indonesian crash.” Then he and Nadia drove the seven hours back home.
In May, at the ﬁrst House hearing on the 737 MAX, the top-ranking Republican on the transportation committee, Sam Graves, of Missouri, blamed the pilots. A pilot himself, he criticized Yared Getachew, the Ethiopian Airlines pilot, for going too fast, making recovery more diﬃcult, and for following “no operating procedure that I have heard of.” “You have to know how to ﬂy the plane!” Graves said. “It just bothers me that we continue to tear down our system based on what has happened in another country.” Elwell, the interim FAA chief, said that the Ethiopian pilots should have overcome MCAS “via a checklist they should have memorized,” and that they “never controlled their air speed.”
In September, in The New York Times Magazine, William Langewiesche, also a pilot, argued that inadequate pilot training in countries like Indonesia was “just as guilty” in the 737 MAX disasters as the planes’ malfunctions. The article suggested that Boeing was being maligned, in a “public onslaught” that included “exploitation of personal tragedy and the construction of a whole new economic sector built around perceptions of the company’s liability.”
Pilot training in Indonesia leaves a great deal to be desired. (Ethiopian Airlines has long been held in higher regard — for one thing, the U.S. paid for general training of the airline’s staﬀ after it ordered 40 737 MAX planes, in 2015.) But to conclude that pilot error was the overriding cause of the crashes requires downplaying a string of revelations about Boeing, the 737 MAX and the FAA that began to emerge soon after the second crash.
The Seattle Times reported that MCAS had initially been designed to be much weaker and to kick in only at high airspeed, which is why Boeing allowed just one angle-of-attack sensor to activate it. But the company later revised MCAS to deploy at lower airspeed, and with greater force — yet left it with just a single sensor for activation. Even as MCAS grew stronger, oversight of the system was delegated to Boeing. The New York Times reported that FAA oﬃcials were surprised to learn crucial details about MCAS only after the Lion Air crash.
The FAA has said that it lacked the resources to oversee the plane’s updates, but the veteran FAA engineer in Seattle told me that this was because of the way its Boeing oﬃce was set up by Ali Bahrami, with only a few people assigned to ﬂight controls. “There are 44,000 people in the FAA,” the engineer said. “But we don’t have enough people to spend four hours to evaluate the MCAS safety assessment?”
The New York Times reported that Boeing had oﬀered a safety feature to alert pilots to a faulty angle-of-attack sensor, but charged extra for it; neither of the doomed planes had this equipment. The Wall Street Journal reported that Boeing’s assumption in designing MCAS was that, in the event of a malfunction, pilots would be able to respond properly within four seconds.
Taken together, the reports suggested that Boeing had put all the risk on the pilot, who would be expected to know what to do within seconds if a system he didn’t know existed set oﬀ a welter of cockpit alerts and forced the plane downward. “An airplane shouldn’t put itself in a position where the pilots have to act heroically to save the plane,” the veteran U.S. commercial airline pilot told me. “Pilots shouldn’t have to be superhuman. Planes are built to be ﬂown by normal people.” Gregory Travis, the pilot and software engineer, said: “MCAS sealed their fate. Everything that comes after that is noise.”
Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who, in 2009, saved a plane by crash-landing it in the Hudson River, testiﬁed at a House hearing in June. “Boeing has said that they did not categorize a failure of MCAS as more critical because they assumed that pilot action would be the safeguard,” he said. This was a mistake. “I can tell you ﬁrst hand that the startle factor is real and it’s huge — it absolutely interferes with one’s ability to quickly analyze the crisis and take eﬀective action.” He said that he, too, had struggled in a 737 MAX simulator after the crashes. “Even knowing what was going to happen, I could see how crews could have run out of time before they could have solved the problems,” he said. MCAS, he concluded, “was fatally ﬂawed and should never have been approved.”
A recent battery of reports has conﬁrmed this assessment. In September, the NTSB issued its ﬁrst report on the 737 MAX, declaring that Boeing underestimated the cockpit chaos that would result from an MCAS malfunction and the eﬀect this would have on a pilot’s ability to react quickly. A report by a task force made up of U.S. and international regulators concluded that Boeing’s engineering representatives faced “undue pressure.” The Indonesian government’s ﬁnal report on the Lion Air crash cited, among other factors, Boeing’s failure to mention MCAS in the 737 MAX manual — the cockpit recorder captured the sound of the pilots riﬄing through pages in vain.
Currently, about 700 737 MAX planes have been grounded or are awaiting delivery, and it seems likely that the plane’s return will stretch well into 2020. The FAA’s European counterpart has made plain that it now has so little faith in Boeing and the FAA’s ability to regulate the planes that it might take the unprecedented step of withholding approval even after the FAA signs oﬀ.
The grounding has cost airlines some $4 billion — Southwest Airlines, which has purchased more 737 MAX planes by far than any other airline, has canceled thousands of ﬂights, leading its pilots’ union to sue Boeing for lost pay. Boeing estimates the total loss to the company at $9 billion and rising. Its stock is down 15% since the Ethiopian crash, erasing $34 billion in value and prompting a shareholder lawsuit.
The company has belatedly signaled that it recognizes that its corporate evolution in the past couple of decades played a role in the disaster. In September, an internal committee recommended that top engineers report to the commercial airplane division’s chief engineer — in theory, a reassertion of expertise against the bottom-line mindset that Stan Sorscher and others deplored. Soon afterward, Boeing replaced the head of its commercial airplane division, and its board of directors stripped Muilenburg of his title as the company’s chairman.
In late October, Muilenburg testiﬁed before two congressional committees, where he was challenged in light of a litany of new revelations. In 2015, a Boeing employee had asked in an email, “Are we vulnerable to single AOA sensor failures with the MCAS implementation?” The following year, the chief technical pilot for the 737 MAX told a colleague in a text that MCAS was “running rampant” and “egregious” in a simulator. A June 2018 Boeing document stated that, if a pilot took more than 10 seconds to react to mistaken MCAS activation, the result could be “catastrophic.”
“If we knew then what we know now, we would have grounded right after the ﬁrst accident,” Muilenburg testiﬁed. Yet he demurred repeatedly when asked if the disasters revealed a need to rein in the FAA’s delegation of safety matters to Boeing.
The Stumos sat behind Muilenburg at both hearings. At the second one, they were joined by Nader, who clutched his congressional handbook. At the ﬁrst hearing, Muilenburg had opened by oﬀering an apology to the families but had addressed it to the committee. As he was leaving the hearing, Nadia Milleron called out, “Mr. Muilenburg, when you say you’re sorry to someone, you turn to look at them.”
Muilenburg stopped and looked at her. “I’m sorry,” he said.
In late June, Ralph Nader hosted a memorial service for victims of the Ethiopian Airlines ﬂight at the American Museum of Tort Law, in Winsted, which he opened in 2015 in a former bank on Main Street. It is an unusual museum. At the center of the main room sits a gleaming red Chevy Corvair. Surrounding it are displays on victories for tort law over corporate negligence, told with colorful illustrations: tobacco, asbestos, the Ford Pinto. There is even a panel depicting GM’s attempt to entrap the young Nader by sending a prostitute to solicit him at a grocery store.
The memorial service was held in a windowless, dimly lit room at the back of the museum. Richard Blumenthal, the state’s senior senator, spoke, as did Joan Claybrook, the former president of Public Citizen, who had sold all of her Boeing stock and donated the proceeds to the museum in Samya’s memory.
But the event was dominated by Nader. In March, I had seen him at the service for Samya held at the farm. He sat by himself, with a plate of Lebanese food, wearing a heavy coat and a woollen hat. I oﬀered my condolences. He nodded, then said, “I will never let Boeing forget her.”
At the museum, he spoke about the underappreciated centrality of tort law to American democracy — that the right of citizens to sue big corporations for wrongdoing was no less important than the right to vote or to face a jury of one’s peers.
There was pride and some defensiveness in his remarks. But there was also a poignant subtext — Boeing was likely to face a reckoning in court for the 737 MAX precisely because the other part of the system that Nader had championed over the years, government regulation, had failed so spectacularly. Nader and his allies had long ago shown the harm done by unchecked corporate greed, but they had been unable to stem the subsequent undermining of government’s ability to do the checking.
“This is a family that has risen to the occasion like similar families in other tragedies to make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else,” Nader said. “Their grief will never go away, but it is partially endurable by taking the lead, on behalf of all of us who ﬂy, to make sure that the deterioration of the state of deregulation and corporate overreach will not plague the safety of hundreds of millions of future airline passengers.”
The thought occurred to me then, as it would many times in the months to come, that it was striking that this role should fall to this of all families. It would be absurd to suggest that they had been preparing for such a moment, but it was hard to imagine a family more prepared for it. To put it another way: Accountability for the 737 MAX would very likely have been more contained and more ﬂeeting had Samya Stumo not been a passenger on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
Michael was the last family member to speak. “We don’t want to be up front on this,” he said. “We want to do something else. But we have to do this.”
A few months later, I visited Michael and Nadia at the farm. It was the ﬁrst cold day of fall, and Michael was loading wood into the outdoor boiler that heats the house. Nadia showed me two items of Samya’s that had been retrieved from the site: her passport and a journal, both drenched in jet fuel. Michael gave me a tour of his new barn and pointed out improvements that he wanted to make. But he’d be paying someone else to do them. “My whole life now is Boeing,” he said.