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737 MAX Whistleblower Pressures Boeing and FAA

June 21, 2020
A flight-deck engineer charges that the jet builder and the safety agency ignored regulations and safety concerns during the initial 737 MAX certification trials.

The Boeing 737 MAX may be on schedule for recertification test flights this month, but a new obstacle is emerging in the effort to return the aircraft to commercial service. A whistleblower has charged that Boeing Co. and the Federal Aviation Administration ignored regulations and safety concerns during the initial 737 MAX certification trials.

Boeing launched service for the new-model 737 in 2017, and the MAX was involved in two fatal crashes in October 2018 and March 2019, killing a total of 346 deaths and leading to 386 aircraft being idled by carriers for the past 15 months.

“The 737 MAX’s original certification was accomplished with hand-waving and deception to hide the numerous ways the 1960s-era design of the 737 does not meet current regulatory standards or a modern concept of aviation safety,” flight-deck engineer Curtis Ewbank wrote in a letter to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.

Ewbank contends that Boeing tried to minimize design changes to the 737 MAX flight deck in order to avoid a regulatory review of the jet as a "new aircraft." This would have slowed the development and certification process, and required pilots to be trained in flight simulators, he maintains. In both crashes the flight crews reportedly were overwhelmed by cockpit alerts from the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight-control software but were unable to address the causes of those warnings.

In a recent Senate hearing FAA administrator Stephen Dickson testified that the agency and the OEM each made errors in certifying the 737 MAX as airworthy in 2017. But, Dickson rejected accusations that the FAA was “stonewalling” probes after the two fatal crashes.

During the past 15 months Boeing has revised the 737 MAX's MCAS, and once that programming has been approved by FAA (as well as the European Air Safety Administration and other agencies around the world), Boeing will be cleared to update the flight-control systems in current and future 737 MAX jets. Evaluating the new MCAS is the primary objective for the recertification flights that FAA pilots will conduct this month.

In addition to the software revision, Boeing is expected to inform customers of a necessary wiring repair prior to returning the grounded aircraft to service.

But, Ewbank — who filed an internal complaint with Boeing in 2019, before documenting his claims for the Senate committee — maintains that updating the MCAS is not enough to make the 737 MAX airworthy.

"Given the numerous other known flaws in the airframe, it will be just a matter of time before another flight crew is overwhelmed by a design flaw known to Boeing and further lives are senselessly lost," Ewbank stated in a letter.

“We continue to work closely with the FAA and other regulatory authorities as we work towards certification and safe return to commercial service,” Boeing offered in a statement. “When the MAX returns to service, it will be one of the most thoroughly scrutinized aircraft in history, and we have full confidence in its safety.”

FAA stated it is working with other nations' air-safety panels on the 737 MAX recertification. “The FAA’s certification of the Boeing 737 MAX is the subject of several independent reviews and investigations that will examine all aspects of the five-year effort,” according to a statement. “While the agency’s certification processes are well-established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs, we welcome the scrutiny from these safety experts and look forward to their findings.”

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