Boeing officials “inappropriately coached” test pilots during recertification efforts after two fatal 737 Max crashes, according to a lengthy U.S. government report released on Friday.
The report from the Senate commerce committee said testing of a key safety system known as MCAS tied to both fatal crashes was contrary to proper protocol.
The committee concluded Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing officials “had established a pre-determined outcome to reaffirm a long-held human factor assumption related to pilot reaction time…. It appears, in this instance, FAA and Boeing were attempting to cover up important information that may have contributed to the 737 Max tragedies.”
All Max planes were grounded worldwide after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed a total of 346 people in October 2018 and March 2019, respectively. Last month, the FAA approved the 737 Max’s return to service, and flights have resumed in Brazil. The first U.S. 737 Max commercial flight with paying passengers is set for Dec. 29.
According to a whistleblower who was an FAA safety inspector, Boeing representatives watched and gave advice to help test pilots in a flight simulator respond to a nose-down pitch of the plane in a few seconds. The reaction of three flight crews was still slower than Boeing had assumed, according to the report. Each time the plane would have been thrown into a nose-down pitch, although recovery would have been possible, the investigators said.
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In the two Max crashes, a failure of the MCAS pushed the nose down repeatedly, sending the planes into fatal dives.
The FAA countered that it was an FAA pilot who discovered a separate computer issue in the plane, a flaw that took Boeing additional months to fix.
Investigators also said an FAA division manager was first invited, then excluded from a review of the Max crashes even though his position normally would call for him to participate in the review. The official said he believes he was excluded to shield the FAA from criticism.
Numerous reports have found Boeing failed to adequately consider how pilots respond to cockpit emergencies in its development of the 737 Max.
Boeing said Friday it takes “seriously the committee’s findings and will continue to review the report in full.”The FAA said Friday it was “carefully reviewing the document, which the committee acknowledges contains a number of unsubstantiated allegations.”
The agency added that it is “confident that the safety issues that played a role in the tragic [737 Max] accidents involving Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 have been addressed through the design changes required and independently approved by the FAA and its partners.”
‘Lapses in aviation safety oversight’
Senate commerce committee chair Roger Wicker said the report “details a number of significant examples of lapses in aviation safety oversight and failed leadership in the FAA.”
The committee also said “multiple independent whistleblowers contacted the committee to allege FAA senior management was complicit in determining the 737 Max training certification level prior to any evaluation.”
Boeing resisted requiring simulator training for pilots before operating the 737 Max but reversed course in January.
The report also noted Southwest Airlines was able to operate more than 150,000 flights carrying 17.2 million passengers on jets without confirmation that required maintenance had been completed.
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The Senate report said the Southwest flights “put millions of passengers at potential risk.” Southwest did not immediately comment. Southwest said Friday it was aware of the report and added “we do not tolerate any relaxing of standards that govern ultimate safety across our operation.”
Boeing still faces an ongoing criminal probe into the Max. The committee said its review was “constrained due to the continued criminal investigation”
Last month, the Senate committee unanimously passed a bill to reform how FAA certifies new airplanes and grant new protections for whistleblowers, among other reforms, while the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a similar bill.