- Carrier thought warning light was operative on revamped 737
- New questions raised as Boeing seeks to end plane’s grounding
Southwest Airlines Co. first learned from Boeing Co. after a deadly Lion Air crash in October that an alert warning pilots of a sensor malfunction linked to the disaster wasn’t a standard feature on the 737 Max.
The world’s largest 737 operator and its pilots had thought that the warning worked on all Max jets, as it had on the previous generation of 737 aircraft, Southwest said Sunday. The airline only learned after the accident that on the Max, the feature was connected to a separate indicator display — available for a fee — that provides readings from the plane’s two angle-of-attack vanes.
“It was presented that it worked,” Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest pilots union, said of the so-called angle-of-attack disagreement alert. “It wasn’t presented that you had to have two AOA indicators on the primary flight display for it to work.”
The revelation raises new questions about Boeing’s best-selling jet as the company works to convince airlines and regulators that the Max will be safe once a software update is installed. The manufacturer is already under scrutiny over how it communicated critical details of the sensors and new software known as MCAS to airlines and regulators. U.S. pilot unions were furious to learn that MCAS wasn’t explained in crew manuals and training materials.
The sensors, which measure the tilt of an aircraft against onrushing wind, played a role not just in the Lion Air crash off the coast of Indonesia but in a subsequent tragedy less than five months later in Ethiopia.
The two accidents killed a total of 346 people, and regulators around the world grounded the plane after the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 fell out of the sky March 10 minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa.
In both disasters, erroneous readings from a single angle-of-attack vane activated the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, a previously obscure system that was added to the Max. That overwhelmed flight crews by repeatedly pushing the jet nose downward.
Southwest had assumed, until it learned otherwise from Boeing, that the Max’s primary flight display included an alert that showed when the angle-of-attack vanes were sending conflicting data to the plane’s flight computers, said Brandy King, a spokeswoman for the Dallas-based airline.
After the October crash, Boeing told the carrier that the so-called disagree light only worked if customers bought an additional angle-of-attack indicator display. That wasn’t the case on the previous NG variant of 737s. The Max entered commercial service in May 2017.
One of the major questions raised concerning Boeing’s 737 Max 8 is whether the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) hardware installed on the plane to help prevent aircraft stalls could have malfunctioned and contributed to the loss of both Lion Air 610 last year and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 more recently.
While that investigation is ongoing, new information indicates that Boeing sells upgrades to critical flight systems that might have improved their overall safety — but it sells them as value-added profit centers in much the same way you might add a stereo option to a car.
Selling Safety as an Upgrade
Boeing sells two MCAS upgrades that weren’t installed on either the Lion Air jet or the Ethiopian Airlines craft, according to the New York Times.
The first is the ability to compare data from more than one AOA sensor via a display that would have shown readings from both at the same time. The second was a ‘disagree light’ that would have activated when contradictory data was being received from both sensors. Either might have alerted the pilots that something was wrong with the MCAS system specifically.
Boeing now states it will make the disagree light standard on all 737 Max 8 aircraft, in addition to the planned software updates it will roll out next month. This new information answers questions some of our readers had raised regarding the capabilities of the MCAS with regard to AOA sensors. When initially rolled out, the MCAS only relied on data from a single AOA sensor. There are multiple AOA sensors in a 737 Max 8, including sensors on both sides of the aircraft. After the upcoming April software update, the MCAS will be updated to check both sensors and to disable itself if there is “meaningful disagreement” between the two.
The fact that safety equipment that could have prevented the 737 Max 8 crash was left optional and uninstalled will undoubtedly figure prominently in the investigation into how Boeing could have allowed this to happen in the first place.
Some FAA employees have stated they faced intra-agency pressure to provide a friendly regulatory environment for Boeing and to speed approval of the 737 Max 8, including allowing Boeing to self-certify its own safety systems.
Some of these changes were put in place in the aftermath of 9/11, but the pressure to get the 737 Max 8 to market in order to compete with the Airbus 320neo was reportedly quite high.
The NYT details how money-making add-ons are a major profit center for airlines. Boeing is known to charge extra for an additional fire extinguisher system in the hold. Japanese regulators require such systems; the FAA does not, despite evidence that a single extinguisher may not be enough to put out fires. Boeing refused to provide a menu of the safety options it sells on aircraft or their prices, but the paper states that such options typically add $800,000 to $2M to the price of an aircraft, representing roughly 5 percent of the total cost of the plane.
It isn’t unusual to see vehicle manufacturers add safety features as extras, either, but the fact that Boeing has lost two brand-new aircraft — and the radically different safety standards used in the airline industry as opposed to the automotive market — are going to shine a harsh light on the company’s practices in this area.
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BOEING HAS MADE 96 FLIGHTS TESTING 737 MAX SOFTWARE UPDATE: CEO
April 12, 2019
Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg says the company has conducted 96 flights testing the software update to an anti-stall feature on the 737 MAX that has been linked to two fatal accidents in the past six months.
The software update to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) has been in development since a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 plunged into the Java Sea shortly after it took off from Jakarta in October 2018. All 188 people on board were killed.
In March 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 with 157 passengers on board crashed minutes after it took off from Addis Ababa.
There were no survivors.
Boeing has acknowledged the MCAS anti-stall feature was activated in response to erroneous angle of attack information in both the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air tragedies, following the publication of the preliminary report into the Ethiopian Airlines accident.
In late March, Boeing held a technical briefing with 200 aviation professionals, including regulators and airline customers of the 737 MAX, to explain the software update.
And since then, the company has also visited the China, Singapore and the United Kingdom for further meetings with pilots and regulators.
Muilenburg, who was on board a test flight in early April, said the software update has functioned “as designed”.
“Overall, our team has made 96 flights totaling a little over 159 hours of air time with the updated software,” Muilenburg said at the George W. Bush Presidential Center Forum on Leadership in Dallas on Thursday (US time), according to a transcript published on the Boeing website.
“They will conduct additional test and production flights in the coming weeks as we continue to demonstrate that we’ve identified and met all certification requirements.
“We look forward to completing near-term milestones on the path to final certification.”
Boeing has explained previously the software update added extra layers of protection from erroneous data out of the aircraft’s angle of attack (AOA) sensors.
This included having the flight control system compare inputs from both AOA sensors. If there was a significant disagreement – by 5.5 degrees or more with the flaps retracted – the MCAS would not activate and an indicator of the flight deck would alert the pilots, according to Boeing.
Further, Boeing said “MCAS can never command more stabilizer input than can be counteracted by the flight crew pulling back on the column”.
“The pilots will continue to always have the ability to override MCAS and manually control the airplane,” Boeing said on its website.
“These updates reduce the crew’s workload in non-normal flight situations and prevent erroneous data from causing MCAS activation.”
In terms of pilot training, Boeing said it had updated the computer-based training to accompany the software update.
The airframe has also paused deliveries and is reducing the production rate of the 737 program to 42 aircraft a month, from 52 aircraft a month previously. The lower production rate was due to occur in mid-April.
Muilenburg, who has been at Boeing more than 30 years, described the past few weeks as “the most heart-wrenching” of his career.
“Our values are at the very core of everything we do. Yet, we know we can always be better, and these recent accidents have intensified our commitment to continuous improvement as we design, build and support the safest airplanes in the sky,” Muilenburg said.
VIDEO: Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg’s speech at the Forum on Leadership from the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s YouTube channel.The May 2019 edition of Australian Aviation magazine will include a feature story on the Boeing 737 MAX.
After the Ethiopian Airlines disaster and before the FAA grounded the Boeing 737 MAX American Airlines pilots came out declaring the aircraft safe.
The Allied Pilots Association (APA), representing the 15,000 pilots of American Airlines, remains confident in the Boeing 737 Max and in our members’ ability to safely fly it.
The pilots for the world’s largest airline have the necessary training and experience to troubleshoot problems and take decisive actions on the flight deck to protect our passengers and crew.
They also underscored that American Airlines 737 MAXs were unique, “the only ones equipped with two [Angle of Attack] displays, one for each pilot, providing an extra layer of awareness and warning.”
Now that the aircraft is grounded, however, and Boeing is working to bring it back into service with updated software, procedures, and training, pilots say the plan isn’t good enough.
American Airlines Boeing 737 MAX Interior
There was no need to ground the aircraft, according to the airline’s pilots union. But it’s also not safe to bring back as-proposed. Those are two positions which are difficult, but not impossible, to reconcile.
A draft report by an FAA-appointed board of pilots, engineers and other experts concluded that pilots only need additional computer-based training to understand MCAS, rather than simulator time.
…[The pilots’ union] is arguing that mere computer explanation “will not provide a level of confidence for pilots to feel not only comfortable flying the aircraft but also relaying that confidence to the traveling public.”
It said the MAX computer training, which originally involved a one-hour iPad course, should include videos of simulator sessions showing how MCAS works along with demonstrations of other cockpit emergencies such as runaway stabilizer, a loss of control that occurred on both doomed flights.
APA also called for recurring training on simulators that includes scenarios like those experienced by the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines pilots, in addition to computer training.
American Airlines Flight Simulators, Fort Worth
More training is better, and that’s tough to argue against. The union likely also sees an opportunity for more paid time for its members.
And American Airlines is in something of a pickle. If the pilots say they need to be paid to do simulator training, that’s what is going to need to happen. During last week’s earnings call, CEO Doug Parker basically said it is the pilots’ call as to whether the aircraft is safe.
We -that’s what gives us – what will give us confidence and what will give the flying public confidence that the aircraft is safe to fly will be when American Airlines pilots say that it’s safe to fly because I can tell you for certain is that if an American owned pilot decides that their plane is safe to fly you can be a hundred percent certain of that and not because – not out of bravado, out of analysis, out of understanding the aircraft, out of training, out of knowing, they have been their co-pilot has been trained accordingly.
So absolutely our pilots will be not just involved and critical to this process will make sure whatever time the aircraft is deemed airworthy that our pilots will – that will have a leadership role in ensuring that they are comfortable with that.
It sounds like American Airlines pilots will be getting simulator time coming up.
American Airlines Chief Executive Doug Parker said on Friday that even if other countries delay the ungrounding of the MAX, once the FAA approves it, American will start flying its 24 aircraft.
Union pilots for Southwest Airlines Co, the world’s largest operator of the MAX with 34 jets and dozens more on order, have said they were satisfied with the FAA draft report but would decide on additional training once they see Boeing’s final proposals.
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