Letting it stay wrong

December 13, 2019

THIS is not currently American aviation’s finest hour. Disastrous crashes within five months of two brand new Boeing 737 Max aircraft with the loss of 346 lives have seriously damaged the reputation of the largest US plane maker. Now it has emerged that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is no less culpable.

After the first crash in Indonesia, it quickly emerged that the suspected cause lay with the MCAS automated control systems responding to erroneous data from a single sensor which misread the aircraft’s attitude. Shortly after takeoff, the sensor registered wrongly that the Lion Air plane was climbing and in danger of a stall, which triggered the automated control system to take over. After the pilots had wrestled back control of the Boeing, the same fatal error kicked in again and again, until the Boeing smashed into the sea with the loss of all 189 passengers and crew.

At a US congressional hearing this week telling evidence has been given that FAA inspectors analyzing preliminary data from the Indonesian crash warned that the same fault would occur repeatedly unless the design flaw was corrected. Yet incredibly, the FAA did not act immediately to ground all Boeing 737 Max aircraft, until the problem had been fixed. Boeing told the FAA that among the extensive pilot documentation provided with each new airliner were instructions on how to override the MCAS system in case of emergency. This indeed seems to have been the basis of confidential briefings by Boeing spin-doctors, who insisted it seemed clear that a full inquiry would conclude the crash had been caused by pilot error.

Boeing did however admit the MCAS system needed an upgrade and engineers were planning to install a second backup sensor.

Then, just five months later, came the second deadly crash, this time of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max, again very shortly after the plane had taken off. Aviation regulators around the world immediately grounded all Boeing 737 Max aircraft, with the single remarkable exception of the US FAA which took three days to take the action. Indeed a day after the March 10 2019 Ethiopian crash the FAA confirmed the “continued airworthiness” of the aircraft.

It is hard to know what pressures and political currents were at work here. It is now known the FAA had been badly hit by Federal budget cuts. It simply did not have the experienced personnel to sign off on every element of the Boeing 737 Max as it was under development. FAA chiefs confessed to US legislators they relied on Boeing itself to certificated key areas of its own work. They also admitted that they hired former Boeing engineers to scrutinize the work of their former colleagues.

Dubious though all this was, none of it might have mattered if two of Being’s new aircraft had not come down in precisely the same circumstances. At the very least, the second of these tragedies was completely avoidable. Had the FAA done its job properly, and Boeing not tried to save time and money by cutting development corners, the first 737 Max smash would also not have happened. There must be no attempts to cover up further unpalatable and embarrassing findings. The proud but battered US aviation industry needs to admit to the harsh truth: Boeing got it wrong. The FAA let it stay wrong.

December 13, 2019
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