In a good news / bad news cycle for US aviation, lawmakers proposed $15 billion in assistance to airlines to return more than 32,000 furloughed workers through 31 March, 2021; meantime, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation released it’s investigation report on the FAA, alleging further collusion with Boeing, including “coaching” of test pilots during the 737 MAX re-certification process.
Also part of the Covid-19 relief stimulus package are significant reforms to how the FAA certifies new aircraft, an outgrowth of the ongoing MAX debacle.
For the $15 billion bailout, airline workers (many of whom were furloughed 1 October) would be paid retroactive to 1 December. Airlines would also be required to resume flying some routes.
In the “Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act,” provisions intend to ensure the FAA keeps a closer eye on how that work proceeds. However, the agency would reportedly still delegate to Boeing a great deal of the certification work on future aircraft. (In the October 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, Congress had mandated maximum delegation of certification work.) The bill also establishes new whistleblower protections.
Funding would also develop technical expertise to conduct more human factors research into how pilots interact with automated flight control systems.
Damning Senate Report
The 102-page Senate committee report, released 18 December, was built on information from 50 whistleblowers, FAA staff interviews, and more than 15,000 pages of documents. It comes one month after the FAA cleared the 737 MAX to return to flight. (Brazil has also authorised the MAX to resume flying, but Transport Canada and EASA have not.)
The findings echo many of the concerns in a September report by the House Transportation Committee.
Previous CAT coverage of the MAX:
One of the more significant findings alleges that, during 737 MAX recertification testing, Boeing “inappropriately influenced” FAA human factor simulator testing of pilot reaction times involving a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) failure.
The report stated: “Whistleblowers detailed concerns about human factor assumptions related to pilot reaction times to a runaway stabilizer event and/or faulty Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) activation. According to whistleblowers, these assumptions include a four second reaction time to identify a runaway stabilizer event which could be indicative of an MCAS activation. One whistleblower conducted his/her own ad hoc testing in a non-MCAS equipped simulator. The three flight crews presented with this scenario responded with reaction times to identify the problem in seven, nine, and eleven seconds. The time to complete the corrective action and correct the situation was forty-nine seconds, fifty-three seconds, and sixty-two seconds. In each instance, the simulator ended up in a nose pitch down altitude, but the simulated aircraft was able to recover. The whistleblower emphasized these tests were completed in a 737-NG simulator, and MCAS was not an available feature or factor in the test scenarios. The whistleblower contends that the result of these tests indicate Boeing’s assumed reaction time of four seconds is unrealistic and found actual pilot reaction times were as much as four times the assumed time.”
“According to the whistleblower and at least one other FAA official, the test was conducted utilizing one FAA Aircraft Certification Office (ACO) test pilot and one AEG test pilot who also participated on the 737 MAX Flight Standardization Board (FSB). The AEG pilot was only included in the test after a second ACO test pilot became unavailable. The whistleblower alleges Boeing officials were present for the testing and encouraged the test pilots to “remember, get right on that pickle switch” immediately prior to the exercise, which they acknowledged. “Pickle switch” refers to the stabilizer trim control switches, which adjust the horizontal stabilizer via electrical controls, enabling the pilot to quickly counter the MCAS action. According to the whistleblower, the FAA ACO test pilot reacted in approximately four seconds in accordance with the assumed reaction time. The AEG pilot reacted in approximately sixteen seconds, or four times longer than the accepted assumption of four seconds.
“When Committee investigators asked a second FAA employee about the official test and disparate results in a subsequent staff interview, DOT General Counsel objected and would not allow the employee to answer, citing the link to ongoing 737 MAX recertification efforts. Committee staff appealed and articulated the importance of oversight and the apparent misconduct the investigation had revealed. DOT counsel did not permit the employee to answer. It was the Committee’s understanding that this second employee being interviewed was, in fact, the AEG test pilot who participated in the official test. DOT OGC provided no additional explanation as to why the second employee was not permitted to answer the same questions as the first employee. The time difference between interviewing the two employees was only a few weeks.
“Based on corroborated whistleblower information and testimony during interviews of FAA staff, the Committee concludes FAA and Boeing officials involved in the conduct of this test had established a pre-determined outcome to reaffirm a long-held human factor assumption related to pilot reaction time to a runaway stabilizer. Boeing officials inappropriately coached test pilots in the MCAS simulator testing contrary to testing protocol. This test took place over a year after the second 737 MAX crash and during recertification efforts. It appears, in this instance, FAA and Boeing were attempting to cover up important information that may have contributed to the 737 MAX tragedies.”
The complete Senate committee report is available here.
The FAA stated it is, “carefully reviewing the document, which the Committee acknowledges contains a number of unsubstantiated allegations. We are confident that the safety issues that played a role in the tragic accidents involving Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 have been addressed through the design changes required and independently approved by the FAA and its partners.”
Boeing said, it “take[s] seriously the Committee’s findings and will continue to review the report in full. Boeing is committed to improving aviation safety, strengthening our safety culture, and rebuilding trust with our customers, regulators, and the flying public.”