The FAA didn’t know about big changes to the 737 Max’s flight system – Business Insider
The Federal Aviation Administration was poorly positioned to oversee the safety of the automated flight system that was to blame for the two deadly crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max plane over the last year, The New York Times reported Saturday.
The agency engineers in charge of keeping a watch on the airplane’s flight control systems through the latter part of its development had little experience with such software, according to The Times report. And Boeing largely kept them in the dark about the importance of the flight-control system on the 737 Max and a crucial change they made to the software soon before releasing the plane commercially, The Times reported.
The Times did not name the engineers in its report.
In a statement emailed to Business Insider, Boeing spokesman Peter Pedraza said the company actually had informed the FAA about changes it made to the flight-control system, dubbed MCAS, during the 737 Max’s development.
“The 737 MAX met the FAA’s stringent standards and requirements as it was certified through the FAA’s processes,” Pedraza said in the statement. “The FAA,” he continued, “considered the final configuration and operating parameters for MCAS and concluded it met all certification and regulatory requirements.”
FAA spokeswoman Lynn Lunsford declined to comment on The Times’ report. The agency’s certification process for the 737 Max is the subject of multiple investigations and reviews, she noted in an email.
“While the agency’s certification processes are well-established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs, we welcome the scrutiny from these experts and look forward to their findings,” she said.
The 737 Max’s flight control system, dubbed MCAS, has been at the center of the investigation into the safety of the plane. In certain circumstances, that system can take control of the plane and tilt its nose sharply downward.
The software is believed to have played a role in both of fatal crashes, which together killed 346 people. The FAA grounded the plane after the second crash in March.
According to The Times report, FAA had two highly experienced engineers overseeing the safety of the Boeing’s flight control systems in the agency’s Seattle office. But both engineers left the FAA midway through the development of the 737 Max, The Times reported. One of the engineers the FAA named in their place had little flight control experience. The other was a newly hired engineer who graduated from graduate school just three years earlier.
The two “seemed ill-equipped” to be in charge of the safety of the MCAS software, The Times reported, citing unnamed people who had worked with them.
Boeing largely kept the FAA in the dark about the MCAS software
Even if the engineers had been more experienced, they might not have caught the problems with the system, The Times suggested.
Early reviews of the plane’s development provided by Boeing to the engineers played down the system’s importance and the safety risks it might entail, according to the report. An FAA manager later delegated a safety review of the system to Boeing itself — an increasingly common, albeit controversial, practice by the agency, The Times reported.
As the plane got closer to production, Boeing made a big change to the MCAS system, allowing it to turn on at low speeds and to move the tail stabilizer by as much as 2.5 degrees each time it turned on, according to the report. Previously, the system could only activate at high speeds and could only move the stabilizer by 0.6 degrees a time.
Boeing didn’t provide the FAA with an updated safety assessment of the flight-control system after making the changes and the two new agency engineers were unaware that the software could move the tail by 2.5 degrees, according to the report.
After the first crash of the 737 Max last October, FAA officials found they didn’t understand and had little documentation about the workings of the MCAS system, The Times reported.
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