As part of its investigation into potential criminal activities by Boeing over the development of its 737 MAX, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has been reviewing an internal ethics complaint lodged by a senior Boeing engineer Curtis Ewbank. He claims that the company rejected incorporating a safety system he believes “could have reduced the risks that contributed to two fatal [MAX] crashes,” according to The New York Times after reviewing the complaint.
Curtis worked on the cockpit systems that help pilots monitor and control the aircraft. He reviewed past crashes and used the information gleaned from his analyses to develop safer aircraft.
He explained that Boeing “[m]anagers twice rejected adding” a synthetic airspeed system that calculates the plane’s speed by using multiple data sources. The system could also determine when the aircraft’s angle-of-attack (AOA) sensors, components that measure the plane’s position in the sky, were malfunctioning. The system also could potentially prevent other systems, such as the MCAS, from using the data to engage based on erroneous data.
Faulty data from the AOA sensors that triggered erroneous and uncommanded activations of the MCAS is at the center of the two 737 MAX crash investigations.
Curtis said that Boeing managers “were urged to study the backup system” but refused because they were “more concerned with the cost and schedule than safety and quality.”
The aircraft manufacturing giant developed the 737 MAX to compete with its rival Airbus’ equivalent aircraft the Airbus A320neo, which was as performing identical to its predecessor, therefore requiring no additional, expensive training for pilots. Boeing wanted to avoid adding any components that might require airlines to pay significant costs to train pilots in simulators and in turn discourage airlines from purchasing the MAX. Additionally, Boeing wanted to avoid any changes that would prompt the more extensive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval process of new aircraft rather than the self-certification, faster-to-market process used for a derivative model and which is also now under federal investigation.
Curtis cited Boeing’s internal culture of prioritizing profits over the public’s safety as a reason for not filing the complaint initially while he was working on the MAX’s development and for temporarily leaving the company. He explained that “fear of retaliation is high” within the company.
However, seven weeks following the second of the two deadly MAX crashes, Curtis filed the complaint through Boeing’s internal whistleblower program. He felt a duty and that it is an “ethical imperative of an engineer – to protect the safety of the public.”
The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee asked Boeing to make the engineer available to the committee for an interview.
Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is the committee chair and said, “All of this information is critical to have as we prepare for our Committee’s October 30th hearing with Boeing’s CEO, as well as Boeing’s chief engineer of its commercial airplanes division, and the chief pilot for the 737.”
About Mike Andrews
Mike is a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section. 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.