MAX Saga Continues

In May I wrote here about the Boeing 737 MAX situation up to that time. Boeing was optimistically predicting the MAX to be up and flying by August. But August has come and gone and the predictions became September…October…December and even now the latest talk is January of 2020 or beyond. Southwest doesn’t plan to be able to use the MAX until Jan. 5. Air Canada says Jan. 8, recent reports state.

In June, Boeing had FAA pilots come to their engineering flight simulator to review scenarios. Certainly they tested out the flight regimes in which the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system would be used. Boeing says the MCAS system was used to “enhance the pitch stability of the airplane – so that it feels and flies like other 737s.” A Boeing statement released early this summer says, “MCAS is designed to activate in manual flight, with the airplane’s flaps up, at an elevated Angle of Attack (AOA). Boeing has developed an MCAS software update to provide additional layers of protection if the AOA sensors provide erroneous data. The software was put through hundreds of hours of analysis, laboratory testing, verification in a simulator and two test flights, including an in-flight certification test with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) representatives on board as observers.”

In late June as the FAA reviewed the 737 MAX software update during simulator sessions, the FAA found an additional need and asked the company to address it through software changes. “The FAA review and process for returning the 737 MAX to passenger service are designed to result in a thorough and comprehensive assessment,” a June 26th statement says. “Boeing agrees with the FAA’s decision and request, and is working on the required software. Addressing this condition will reduce pilot workload by accounting for a potential source of uncommanded stabilizer motion. Boeing will not offer the 737 MAX for certification by the FAA until we have satisfied all requirements for certification of the MAX and its safe return to service.”

Additionally, Boeing says software updates to the system will now compare inputs from two AOA sensors. If the sensors disagree by 5.5 degrees or more with the flaps retracted, MCAS will not activate. Also, if the MCAS is activated in non-normal conditions, it will only provide “one input for each elevated AOA event. There are no known or envisioned failure conditions where MCAS will provide multiple inputs.” Boeing says now MCAS will never command more stabilizer input than can be counteracted by the flight crew pulling back on the column. The pilots will always have the ability to override MCAS and manually control the airplane. These updates have been designed to keep bad data from causing the MCAS system to activate.

Civil aviation authorities around the world including European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and those from India, China and Canada, have all said they plan to conduct their own flight tests on the MAX, independently from the FAA, when the time comes. EASA has also said it prefers additional redundancy in the system with readings from three independent angle of attack sensors rather than the current upgraded MAX system that has two.

Icelandair worked out an agreement with Boeing to cover costs for their grounded fleet of six 737 MAXs. It was the first carrier to announce a deal with the company since the grounding in March.

Separately, Boeing reported at the end of spring the cost of the MAX fix was topping $1 billion. But by mid-summer the cost was up to $7 billion and still climbing. More airlines will likely receive compensation as well, driving the charges higher.

In another concerning incident, testing for Boeing’s new widebody 777X, was suspended in early September when a cargo door exploded outward during a high-pressure stress test on the ground.

A new safety committee established by CEO Dennis Muilenburg in April, reported their findings to the Boeing board in mid-September. A NYT report says their recommendations included “changing corporate reporting structures, creating a new safety group, and changing the cockpits of future planes to accommodate new pilots with less training.”

Meanwhile, a new FAA Administrator, Steve Dickson – formerly SVP of Flight Ops at Delta Air Lines, was sworn in. Let’s hope the two pilots that filed complaints against Dickson about retaliation after reporting safety concerns were the only two, and that those cases were not indicative of a pervasive problem in what seems to be an otherwise stellar career.

On September 19, 2019, Boeing hosted Administrator Dickson in Renton and Seattle, Wash. Dickson, who holds a 737 type rating and flew the aircraft on the line, spent time in the 737 MAX simulator and reportedly held discussions with senior leaders, including Boeing’s Kevin McAllister, Commercial Airplanes president and CEO. “We remain committed to working collaboratively with the FAA and other global regulators to safely return 737 MAX back to service,” a Boeing statement released at the time of the visit says.

Since the two crashes, numerous government agencies have been researching how the FAA certifies new aircraft and the policy of delegating certification to the manufacturers themselves, as was the case with the MAX. Oversight, or the lack of it, is often mentioned in relation to outsourced maintenance and is once again being bandied about as problematic in regards to certification as well.

It does seem the FAA is being more methodical, thorough and thoughtful this time around. It’s said the regs are written in blood. For the flying public’s safety, let’s hope they do not forget that.

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