FAA chief to test updated 737 MAX software as planes remain grounded

The 737 MAX was grounded after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

September 18, 2019, 10:24 AM

Steve Dickson laid out the Federal Aviation Administration's next steps in the recertification of the Boeing 737 MAX in the first month of his new term as FAA administrator, but now he's heading to Seattle to get in the simulator himself.

Dickson, the former senior vice president of flight operations at Delta Airlines and a long-time pilot, will get into the MAX flight simulator later this week at Boeing's headquarters to see for himself if he can handle the automated flight control system misfire that led to the grounding of the aircraft around the world following the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia last October and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March. A combined 346 people were killed in the two accidents.

The FAA chief said it's premature to point fingers or cast blame, but acknowledged there were some common threads in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents.

"We need to make sure nothing like that ever happens again, they should not have occurred," he said.

The French aviation authority, BEA, which worked with the Ethiopian investigators, said in March that upon inspection, the plane's flight data recorder did show clear similarities to the recording from the Lion Air flight. In April, then-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg acknowledged for the first time the flight control system played a role in both crashes.

PHOTO: A Boeing Co. 737 Max 8 plane is seen at the company's manufacturing facility in Renton, Washington, March 12, 2019.
A Boeing Co. 737 Max 8 plane is seen at the company's manufacturing facility in Renton, Washington, March 12, 2019.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Dickson said that as the recertification process continues the safety of the 737 MAX is to be determined.

"I'm taking a look at how we got to this point and what parts of the process are working as intended," Dickson said.

In both deadly accidents it appears the angle-of-attack sensors malfunctioned, activating a new anti-stall software on the 737 MAX 8 that controls trim and is believed to have pushed the nose of the planes down. The pilots were unable to regain control of the aircraft.

Dickson said he will not recertify the plane until he feels comfortable flying the plane himself, or putting his own family on it: "My job is to make sure the airplane is safe."

The FAA has submitted a request from Boeing to detail how pilots interact with the airplane controls and displays in different flight scenarios. Dickson called it a complete review of the "system architecture of the aircraft."

Once those submissions are reviewed, the FAA will schedule its certification test flight.

But Dickson wants to also ensure that MAX pilots feel confident about updates to the aircraft's flight control system and that the federal regulators are inclusive in their certification process, saying, "We're including pilots not only from the U.S., but also from international operators around the world."

PHOTO: Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, July 1, 2019.
Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, July 1, 2019.
Lindsey Wasson/Reuters, FILE

Dickson believes that the grounding of the 737 MAX might bring about a change in the certification process.

"There's a lot of innovation going on both in commercial aviation and other segments of the industry," Dickson said. "We need to make sure that we're ahead of that change, both from a workforce perspective, from a skills perspective and from a technology perspective."

But he emphasized that it's not just about certifying the machine as a technical piece of equipment, but also looking at how "the human interacts with the system" and how that operator is trained.

When asked when the 737 MAX would fly again, Dickson said the FAA is not working on any timeline, adding that it might be recertified by the end of the year, but that it "could also extend beyond that."

Several airlines, including American and United, have already grounded their MAX jets into December, while Southwest, which has more of the model than any other U.S. carrier, has extended cancellations into January.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Dickson's proper title.

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