A BBC TV Panorama programme this week reported Boeing production of the 737 Max was “not adequately funded”.
The 737 Max aircraft remains grounded following two crashes which killed 346 passengers and crew.
The BBC report was based on the account of former Boeing engineer Adam Dickson, who worked at the manufacturer for 30 years and led a team of engineers who worked on the Max.
He alleged there was “a lack of sufficient resources to do the job”. “The culture was very cost centred. Engineers were given targets to get certain amount of cost out of the aeroplane.”
Dickson said engineers were also pressured to downplay new features on the Max.
“The goal was to show that those differences were so similar to the previous design [of the 737] that it would not require a major design classification in the certification process.”
This is pretty damning stuff. Boeing said it is not true, insisting: “We did not cut corners or push the 737 Max out before it was ready.”
But an even more damning report appeared this week in the New York Times which appears to confirm and extend the allegations.
It reported the US Federal Aviation Administration did not fully understand the MCAS anti-stall software system on the 737 Max and only became aware of it after the first of the two crashes last October.
Having been made aware, the FAA failed to ground the Max until after the second crash in March and then only acted after aviation regulators in China, Europe and elsewhere acted first.
The New York Times accused the US regulator of “relaxing its oversight” of the Max, having an overly close relationship with Boeing and overseeing “a broken regulatory process”.
It reported: “The [MCAS] software was never stress tested and the FAA handed over responsibility for approving it to Boeing.”
FAA ‘never independently assessed’ system
The New York Times (NYT) report is based on internal documents and interviews with a dozen “current and former employees at the FAA and Boeing”.
It alleges that in the days following the crash of a Lion Air 737 Max in October last year, FAA engineers “scoured their files” for information on the aircraft’s MCAS anti-stall system.
They found little because “regulators had never independently assessed” the system.
The NYT notes the FAA “had been passing off routine tasks to manufacturers for years” to allow its specialist engineers to focus on more important safety aspects.
But it reports: “On the Max, the regulator handed near complete control to Boeing, leaving key agency officials in the dark about important systems like MCAS.
“The FAA handed responsibility for approval of MCAS to the manufacturer.”
When, late in the development cycle, “Boeing decided to expand the use of MCAS”, the FAA engineers responsible “were not aware of the intricacies” and “Boeing did not submit a formal review of MCAS after the overhaul.”
It is the MCAS system that has been implicated in both crashes.
The FAA and Boeing have defended the certification process. The New York Times noted Federal prosecutors are investigating how the aircraft was certified.
It quoted Chris Hart, former chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board, who is leading the investigation.
He told the newspaper: “Did the MCAS get the attention it needed? That is one of the things we’re looking at. It [MCAS] evolved from a less robust to a more powerful system. Were the certifiers aware of the changes?”
The NYT reports they were not.
It suggests Boeing needed swift approval for the Max because it was tailing Airbus in the race to produce a more fuel-efficient version of its best-selling short-haul aircraft.
A retired Boeing engineer who worked on the Max told the NYT: “The FAA was delegating more of the work and the review and the oversight to the manufacturers.”
The newspaper reports FAA officials were “making decisions based on [Boeing] company deadlines and budget . . . [and] senior leaders at the FAA sometimes overruled their own staff’s recommendations after Boeing pushed back.”
An FAA official suggested that by 2018 the FAA “was letting the company certify 96% of its own work”.
Another FAA engineer who worked on the Max told the newspaper that supervisors repeatedly asked her not to approve safety documents.
As an example of where this led, the newspaper reports that, early in the development of the Max, FAA engineers discovered a potential problem with the aircraft’s engines.
These more fuel-efficient engines are bigger and more complex than on earlier versions of the 737, but as a result could potentially do more damage.
The FAA engineers expressed concern about engine pieces breaking off and severing cables controlling the aircraft rudder. They suggested couple of fixes.
The NYT reports: “Boeing did not want to make a change. A redesign could have caused delays. Most of the FAA engineers insisted the change was necessary for safety reasons. But their supervisors balked.
“FAA managers conceded that the Max ‘does not meet’ agency guidelines ‘for protecting flight controls’.”
But the managers wrote: “It would be ‘impractical at this late point in the programme . . . to resolve the issue.”
One engineer submitted a complaint which an FAA panel investigated in 2017 and found managers had created “an environment of mistrust that hampers the ability of the agency to work effectively”.
The investigation noted: “The company has a vested interest in minimising costs and schedule impact.”
MCAS could ‘trigger repeatedly’
Following the Lion Air crash, the NYT reports: “FAA engineers were shocked to discover they did not have a complete analysis of MCAS.
“The safety review in their files did not mention the system could aggressively push down the nose of the plane and trigger repeatedly.”
As a consequence, the notice the FAA put out to airline pilots “did not describe how MCAS worked”.
The New York Times explains how this came about, alleging: “Boeing played down the importance of MCAS from the outset.
“An early review [of MCAS] by the company did not consider the system risky. [It] described a system that would activate only in rare situations when a plane was making a sharp turn at high speeds.
“The FAA engineers overseeing MCAS never received another safety assessment.”
But “as Boeing raced to finish the Max in 2016” it overhauled the system, allowing MCAS “to trigger at low speeds”.
The early version of MCAS moved the nose stabiliser by 0.6 degrees when triggered. The modified version moved it by up to four times as much “each time it triggered . . . significantly pushing down the nose of the plane”.
Boeing assumed pilots would respond to an MCAS malfunction and be able to bring the nose of the aircraft back up within three seconds. In practice, this proved impossible.
But Boeing “never submitted an updated safety assessment” to the FAA.
The NYT reports: “An FAA test pilot learned the details of the system from Boeing. But the two FAA engineers did not understand MCAS could move the tail as much as 2.5 degrees.
“Under the impression the system was insignificant, officials did not require Boeing to tell pilots about MCAS.
“The FAA did not mention the software in 30 pages of detailed descriptions noting differences between the Max and the previous iteration of the 737.”
As a result: “Days after the Lion Air crash, [FAA] officials sat incredulous as Boeing executives explained details about the system they didn’t know.”
Many questions remain unanswered, but at least one conclusion is simple to draw. The Max won’t be back flying for a while a yet and Boeing won’t be out of the woods for a lot longer.
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