Two retired airline pilots got to fly in the Boeing 737 Max simulator now fitted with the revised MCAS system, Randy Babbitt the former administrator of the FAA and Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger. But when it came to letting the airline pilots who will be flying in the presumably improved 737 Max with paying passengers onboard, Boeing apparently nixed the idea.
Boeing’s 737 Max is widely thought to have harbored a design flaw that contributed to two air disasters that killed 346 people. And yet, conciliation seems to elude the plane maker.
At a hearing on Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on Safety and Transportation, the president of the Allied Pilots Association, American’s union, said Boeing had invited two Max pilots to go to Miami and flight test the simulator, fitted with the software changes Boeing hopes will get the airplane back in service.
“Two pilots from American were invited then disinvited to fly on Max simulator, though former FAA chair Babbitt was given a flight,” the APA chief, Dan Carey said, adding that no explanation was given.
Babbitt, a former airline pilot with Eastern, former head of the Air Line Pilots Association and the former administrator of the FAA, acknowledged he did fly the Boeing-owned sim and Sullenberger was with him.
Flying through the simulated emergency was disconcerting, Babbitt testified, even though both he and Sullenberger knew what was going to happen. “I was able to follow the procedures, essentially I had training.”
The preliminary analysis of the accidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia suggest that when the MCAS systems triggered and the pilots pulled the planes nose up, the system re-engaged causing repeated dives that eventually led to both disasters.
“The new software fix was a good one and limits the amount of authority given to the pitch down and it only does it once. You either fix it or you don’t,” was Babbitt’s review. That summation may have been what Boeing wanted, from a man with a higher profile in Washington DC than the union pilots.
Carey’s frustration was obvious. He told the committee the union believed it should be part of the design and certification of all new Boeing products and should certainly have been able to experience the design changes planned for the Max. American Airline has 24 Maxs in its fleet.
“If Boeing will not renew their invitation,” he said, APA would purchase time at one of the other Max simulators being used by airlines in Canada or Ethiopia. “We’re the largest airline in the world we’d like a look at this scenario,” he said.
To be clear, Babbitt’s praise of his experience in the sim was one of the few moments when Boeing was not being castigated for decisions made in the design and certification of the Max.
“Assumptions were made that should have been more rigorously tested,” Babbitt said. He noted that other planes that had design flaws – he mentioned the Comet and the DC-10 – went on to fly for years after they were fixed.
Sullenberger was not so understanding, especially when asked about a statement Boeing has made several times that the pilots in the two Max accidents mishandled the emergency.
“We should not be blaming dead pilots. We need to do much more than that. Asking whether this was pilot error or design error doesn’t address the right question,” Sullenberger said.
“We must make accurate assumptions about what is possible in extreme emergencies, given the distractions, the workload, the task saturation.” He was seconds away from being told his time was up when he got to his big finish and it couldn’t have been to Boeing’s liking.
“We shouldn’t expect pilots to have to compensate for flawed designs.”
I am a journalist, a published author, speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.