Boeing 737 MAX 8: FAA overlooked warnings before Ethiopian plane crash
Was the United States complacent in its certification of the Boeing 737 MAX?
That’s a question everyone is asking after Addis Ababa said flight recorded data showed “clear similarities” between last week’s Ethiopian Airlines crash and that of Indonesia’s Lion Air five months earlier.
In service since May 2017, the 737 MAX 8, one of several variants of the 737 MAX, has now experienced two deadly tragedies, a scenario that is unprecedented for a new aircraft.
Investigations are ongoing but early evidence has pointed to a problem with the flight stabilisation system designed to prevent stalling, the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system or MCAS.
Ethiopian Transport Minister Dagmawit Moges said on Sunday a study of the flight data recorder retrieved from the Ethiopian plane had shown “clear similarities” to that of the Lion Air flight.
While it may take months for definitive conclusions, experts are asking why the MCAS was green lit despite objections by American pilots who had voiced concerns with the system.
But an investigation by The Seattle Times — in the town where Boeing has a large manufacturing presence — showed numerous problems with the MCAS, including that it would repeatedly override a pilot’s actions based on one faulty sensor. The paper asked for a response from Boeing and the FAA at least a week prior to the latest crash.
The report also said both Boeing and the FAA were informed of the specifics of this story and were asked for responses 11 days ago, before the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX aircraft — the same model flown by Lion Air crashed off the coast of Indonesia in October, killing all 189 on board.
The FAA declined to comment on the Seattle Times report but referred to previous statements about the certification process. It has said the 737 MAX certification process followed the FAA’s standard certification process.
BOEING EMPLOYEES AT THE HELM
The US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is in the line of fire because it authorises the commissioning of aeroplanes.
But for the past decade, it has outsourced the mission, entrusting the task to aeroplane manufacturers themselves and to external experts.
Under this new program, known as the Organisation Designation Authorisation (ODA), employees of Boeing accredited by the FAA assist the regulator in approving the aircraft of their employer (from design, production, flight tests, maintenance and other systems) as well as signing off on the training procedures of pilots on new planes.
The trend had accelerated due to budget cuts and the increasing volume of air travel, industry sources told AFP. In the case of the 737 MAX, Boeing expressed a case of urgency because of its medium-haul competition with the Airbus A320neo that launched shortly before, the sources said.
The original safety analysis Boeing delivered to the FAA had “several crucial flaws”, according to a report in the Seattle Times on Sunday.
There were also strong differences of opinion between FAA staff in Seattle, where Boeing planes are built, and in the Washington DC headquarters, a government source told AFP.
The agency defended itself on Sunday, telling AFP in an email: “The 737 MAX certification program followed the FAA’s standard certification process.” Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s CEO, said on Sunday the company was finalising a software update to the MCAS. Industry sources indicated to AFP it would be ready in about 10 days.
WILL THERE BE PUBLIC HEARINGS?
Boeing and US aviation regulators are coming under intense scrutiny over the certification of the 737 MAX aircraft after news the two recent crashes share similarities.
On March 11, just a day after the Ethiopia crash left 157 dead, a grand jury in Washington issued a subpoena to at least one person involved in the plane’s certification, according to a Wall Street Journal article citing people close to the matter.
The subpoena, which came from a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s criminal division, seeks documents and correspondence related to the plane, according to the report.
A criminal inquiry is “an entirely new twist”, said Leeham Company managing director Scott Hamilton who recalled a probe of a 1996 ValuJet crash as the only other aviation probe that was not a civil investigation.
“Unlike France, where criminal investigations into aviation accidents seems common, it is very, very rare in the US,” Mr Hamilton added.
The Transportation Department’s inspector general also is probing the approval of the 737 MAX by the FAA, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is planning to launch an investigation into the 737 MAX’s certification, Congressional sources said, adding public hearings have not been ruled out.
“The FAA’s credibility is really on the line here, as is Boeing’s. And, the global system of aircraft certification reciprocity is at risk too,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aeronautic analyst at Teal Group.
Following the Lion Air crash, the FAA asked Boeing to modify its flight manuals and pilot training so they could recognise and respond to unexpected manoeuvres initiated by the MCAS.
Pilots had notably underlined the need for information and training beyond what had initially been provided.
The 737 MAX was certified as a variant program of its predecessor, the 737 Next Generation, despite major differences in the engine and the MCAS, according to documents available on the FAA’s website. In a nutshell, the plane was not examined in its entirety.
The motors on the new plane are heavier than in the 737 NG, posing more of a risk of stalling, so the MCAS was designed to protect against the possibility. But the Lion Air accident showed the system could erroneously correct for a stall when the plane was taking off, based on one bad sensor, and continuously fight the pilot for control.
US pilots complained to Boeing about the issues following the Lion Air crash. Because of budget constraints, the FAA delegated aspects of the approval process to Boeing itself, according to sources.
The FAA last week said it already had ordered Boeing to develop a fix for problems with the MCAS system. But the agency was not able to describe any changes in the plane implemented by Boeing after the Lion Air accident.
According to one aviation expert who requested anonymity, Boeing had readied some modifications for the system by the end of 2018, but the regulatory approval and subsequent installation of the changes were delayed by the five-week US government shutdown.
Originally published as ‘Crucial flaws’ in Boeing MAX report