Chicago/Washington: Boeing Co. and the Federal Aviation Administration flouted regulations and ignored systemic safety concerns in the original certification of the 737 Max jetliner, a company whistle-blower told a U.S. Senate committee.
In a letter dated June 5, Curtis Ewbank, a flight-deck engineer who worked on the Max, called on the U.S. regulator to modernize its oversight and create an independent channel for engineers to raise safety issues. He wrote the letter before FAA Administrator Steve Dickson testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on June 17.
“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,” Ewbank wrote. He faulted Boeing and the FAA for “allowing such reckless disregard of regulations and aviation safety.”
The letter underscores the scrutiny on the FAA and Boeing as they work through the final steps to end a grounding imposed in March 2019 after two fatal accidents that killed 346 people. The regulator is completing its review of pilot training materials and flight-control software that Boeing upgraded following the crashes. FAA pilots are expected to conduct a certification flight this month in a milestone for the jet’s return, Bloomberg News reported last week.
In a statement, the FAA said it welcomed scrutiny and would incorporate any changes that could improve its certification process. Boeing said it was confident in the Max’s safety as the aircraft nears a return to the skies.
“We continue to work closely with the FAA and other regulatory authorities as we work towards certification and safe return to commercial service,” Boeing said 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.”
Ewbank said investigators from the FBI and a U.S. House of Representatives committee had reached out to him after the Seattle Times published his internal ethics complaint last year. The newspaper earlier reported on Ewbank’s June 5 letter.
The U.S. Justice Department opened a criminal probe of the Max certification in the weeks after a Lion Air jet plunged into the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018, the first of the crashes.
The FAA said it was working with its international counterparts and would “carefully consider all recommendations” and incorporate any changes that could improve its certification process.
“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,” the U.S. regulator said in 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.”
Boeing tried to change the Max flight deck as little as possible from a previous version of the 737 to avoid having regulators review the plane as a a completely new aircraft type, Ewbank said. Doing so would have slowed the plane’s development and required pilots to be trained in flight simulators.
Because of that “certification tactic,” the company “severely limited” the range of its human-factors evaluation of the jet’s flight-control systems, Ewbank said, referring to the science of studying the interface between humans and machines. Earlier this year, Boeing abandoned its effort to avoid simulator training.
In both Max accidents, flight crews were overwhelmed by a cacophony of cockpit alerts, triggered by a failed angle-of-attack sensor. They lost control after failing to correctly counteract a flight-control system that kicked on erroneously and pointed the aircraft nose downward. Investigators later determined that Boeing engineers never tested how pilots responded to the so-called MCAS under those circumstances.
Ewbank said he resigned from Boeing in 2015 to protest the design decisions, returning to the company three years later to witness “the nightmare of the very accidents I had tried to prevent happen in real life.”
In his latest missive, Ewbank called on the FAA to make its certification process more robust to monitor evolving technology, such as “digital twin” software, that plays a greater role in how Boeing designs its planes. He also advocated for creating a system where ethical concerns can be evaluated independently of review by Boeing managers and lawyers.
The company said it hadn’t seen his letter.
“As you know, Boeing offers its employees a number of channels for raising concerns and complaints and has rigorous processes in place that ensure complaints receive thorough consideration and protect employee confidentiality,” the company said.
Bipartisan legislation unveiled in the Senate includes several reforms to the FAA’s oversight of new aircraft designs that have come under scrutiny following the 737 Max crashes.
The legislation would require more direct FAA oversight of manufacturers and direct the agency to reassess the underlying assumptions about how pilots interact with aircraft systems when the agency reviews the safety of new planes, especially how fight crews respond to multiple cockpit alerts and automated flight control systems.
The FAA would also set up an anonymous reporting program for agency employees to relay safety concerns about new aircraft designs during the certification process, and whistle-blower protections for airline employees would be extended to manufacturer contractors.- Bloomberg