Boeing excluded its senior pilots and test pilots from critical stages in the development of the 737 Max 8 flight-control system, raising alarm among some senior staff members that “something is going to get by and it’s not going to be pretty,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Historically, Boeing has depended on its senior pilots and test pilots, many of whom are former military aviators, to provide detailed input about a plane’s performance. That information typically apprises the engineers who develop new aircraft and their flight systems. Necessary adjustments are made to the controls before they are locked in and the aircraft is produced and delivered.
Because the pilots weren’t involved in the final 737 Max development stages, they did not receive detailed briefings about the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an auxiliary unit of the flight control system designed “to compensate for some unique aircraft handling characteristics” posed by the 737 Max’s redesign.
Boeing designed the MCAS system to kick in automatically without pilot input and operate in the background whenever the plane is at risk of stalling. MCAS uses data from one of the plane’s “angle of attack” (AOA) sensors to determine if the aircraft is flying too slowly and at too steep of an angle to maintain lift. If a stall is imminent, MCAS forces the nose the 737 Max downward to generate more speed and lift.
According to WSJ, senior pilots within the company found themselves shut out of the usual meetings with engineers and would sometimes show up announced. Once source told WSJ that the test pilots “had no real input” into the ultimate MCAS design. Subsequently, the MCAS could behave aggressively and with four times more power in some situation than in earlier beta versions, according to The Seattle Times.
Had Boeing kept its pilot advisors in the loop about the MCAS, it’s likely they would have sounded off on a key flaw: the use of just one of the aircraft’s two AOA sensors to inform the MCAS. Boeing designed the 737 Max – and the Federal Aviation Administration approved it – knowing that AOA sensors are vulnerable to damage and error. This lack of a redundant safety system, which has boggled former Boeing engineers and other aviation experts, likely contributed to the crashes of Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, which together killed 346 people.
Boeing has insisted it had proper guidance in place to help pilots faced with a faulty and aggressive MCAS anti-stall system. But whatever spin Boeing tries to put on the problem, the fact remains that pilots stand a better chance of correcting a flight emergency when they don’t have gaps in their understanding of it.
While 737 Max planes remain grounded, Boeing is working on a software patch that will include having two AOA sensors feed data to the MCAS system.
The Wall Street Journal notes that Boeing began restructuring its operations in 2009, when it was on the cusp planning its 737 Max series. This effort involved consolidating its pilots and labs from its commercial and military divisions into one company-wide unit. These streamlined operations may have spared Boeing some bottom-line costs, but critics indicate the true price has come in the form of major safety failures.
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses 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. Mike will represent the family of an Ethiopian Airlines crash victim, and is investigating both deadly Boeing crashes on behalf of families. 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.