It is sensational what the chief project engineer for the Boeing 737 MAX tells House investigators. When he approves a design change to software on the plane, he is not only unaware of key details about how the software works. But he is also unaware of a previous warning from a test pilot that if the system malfunctions, the results could be catastrophic.
Boeing 737 MAX crashes
In practice it appears catastrophic indeed: 346 fatalities are the result of 2 crashes. A Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX crashes on October 29, 2018 and a similar aircraft of Ethiopian Airlines crashes on March 10, 2019.
A report by investigators from the House Transportation Committee - released on September 15, 2020 - includes the chief project engineer’s remark. The software is called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) and has been identified as a factor in both crashes.
The shocking House report details numerous gaps in oversight. But is seems even worse than that. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t find any noncompliance by Boeing as the plane maker has followed all applicable rules. The regulator doesn’t make any mistake either when they issue an airworthiness certificate. Boeing and the FAA followed the rules.
If everybody is compliant and still 2 planes crash, the system is broken. So it seems time for an additional rule. That could be the following. If the plane maker and the FAA fail to understand how an aircraft is designed, it should not certify that the plane is safe to fly.
But there is also another factor. Boeing is driven in part by pressure to get the new planes to customers quickly and without requiring its pilots to undergo extensive retraining. This goal is even symbolized by “countdown clocks” on the wall of a conference room.
There is more to the story, however. First, Boeing feels pressure from Airbus’ successful A320neo to develop the MAX rapidly and at low cost. Second, the FAA is underfunded, which raises the question how dependent the FAA is on Boeing.
Out of necessity, Boeing employs engineers who are also authorized to represent the FAA. But that seems like getting the butcher to inspect his own meat. Small wonder that some of those engineers allegedly fail to report abuses. And concerned FAA employees have reportedly been overruled by their managers. Thus, the certification process seems capable of improvement.
Tags: FAA, Boeing 737 MAX, certification