Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test pilots discovered another computer problem with the Boeing 737 MAX despite the “fix” Boeing has been working on since the first of two deadly crashes involving the aircraft eight months ago. During flight simulations last week, a test pilot wasn’t able to quickly and easily recover the plane, in at least one instance, using Boeing’s prescribed emergency procedures to regain control of the plane.
The latest defect is connected to the software known as the MCAS flight control system. The pilot gave the system a failing grade, determining that the failure was catastrophic and could lead to the loss of the plane in midflight. The FAA said this is “a potential risk that Boeing must mitigate.”
In May, Boeing submitted its proposed “fix” to the FAA for approval. It spoke confidently of the “fix” saying that “the 737 MAX with updated MCAS software will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly.”
“Boeing continues pushing to get this dangerous aircraft back in the skies showing that its motivation is still misguided,” said Beasley Allen’s Mike Andrews, who recently filed lawsuits against Boeing on behalf of the families of Ethiopian Airlines crash victims. “Boeing remains focused on its balance sheet rather than public safety. It is encouraging that the FAA appears to be looking more closely at the 737 MAX. It is more important than ever for the agency to remain focused on the safety of the traveling public rather than bowing to Boeing’s pressure to quickly approve a remedy that doesn’t truly address the aircraft’s problems.”
The two deadly 737 MAX crashes are still under investigation, but early findings link them to the malfunctioning MCAS. The software was secretly added to the plane to help prevent it from stalling, a problem that is a result of aerodynamic problems created by the aircraft’s design. The MCAS was designed to operate in the background and only activate if readings from the Angle of Attack (AOA) sensor indicated the plane was stalling. However, Boeing only included a single AOA sensor when two sensors are normally standard. A false reading by only one sensor creates a single point of failure, which erroneously activates the MCAS. The MCAS pushes the nose of the plane down to prevent stalling. Pilots can disengage the MCAS, but it can quickly reactivate, creating a tug of war between the pilots and the plane until it crashes.
The two tragic crashes involved Lion Air Flight 610 last October and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 less than five months later. Combined, the crashes claimed 346 lives.
Throughout this tragic debacle, the aircraft manufacturing giant has declared that pilots should be able to easily recover a 737 MAX aircraft that is suffering a software malfunction with an understanding of standard emergency procedures. This latest discovery may support 737 MAX pilots’ request for additional, hands-on training for piloting with the MCAS. Boeing consistently resists the idea of such training because of the cost involved.
Pilots, including Captain Chelsey Sullenberger who piloted the plane that infamously landed on the Hudson River without loss of any passengers, argue that a few hours of training on an iPad is a weak substitute for hands-on simulator training. The FAA is still reviewing the need for additional training but a draft report released in April by an FAA-appointed board reviewing the training issue said no additional computer-based training was necessary.
Mike Andrews is a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section focusing much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. He also has written a book on the subject to assist other aviation lawyers, “Aviation Litigation & Accident Investigation.” The book offers an overview to the practitioner about the complexities of aviation crash investigation and litigation.