Senators Grill Boeing CEO Over What He Knew of 737 MAX Safety Issues

Petr Svab
By Petr Svab
October 29, 2019US News

Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation questioned Boeing’s top executives on Oct. 29 regarding safety and oversight issues stemming from the two crashes of Boeing 737 MAX planes that killed 346 in 2018 and 2019.

The senators focused on recently revealed 2016 communications of 737 MAX’s then-chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner, who raised issues about the behavior of the plane’s automated flight control system, MCAS, in a flight simulator. MCAS issues have been pinpointed as one of the major factors in the crashes.

The MCAS was “running rampant” during the simulation, and the plane was “trimming itself like craxy [sic]” at a relatively low speed and altitude (4,000 feet, 265 mph), Forkner texted to Patrik Gustavsson, Boeing’s technical pilot at the time, who has since been promoted to take Forkner’s position. The texts were provided to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in February as part of Boeing’s cooperation with an investigation apparently sparked by the first crash.

Forkner’s description seems to resemble what happened during the crashes of Lion Air flight 610 on Oct. 29, 2018, and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 on March 10, 2019. In both cases, it appears, the MCAS was getting erroneous data from a faulty sensor that caused it to repeatedly “trim,” meaning push the plane’s nose down.

Dennis Muilenburg, president and CEO of Boeing, said he was made aware of Forkner’s communications in early 2019, before the second crash, but didn’t remember being briefed on the details.

He noted that the company handed over half a million pages of documents, and he hadn’t read all of them.

He said Boeing hasn’t been able to talk to Forkner, since he no longer works at the company.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was apparently displeased with the explanation, accusing the CEO of “disclaiming responsibility.”

“How did you not in February set out a 9-alarm fire to say, we need to figure out exactly what happened, not after all the hearings, not after the pressure, but because 346 people have died and we don’t want another person to die,” he said.

“I didn’t see details of this exchange until recently, and we’re not quite sure what Mr. Forkner meant by that exchange,” Muilenburg said.

Forkner’s lawyer previously told media the texts pertained to concerns about the flight simulator not behaving properly and that Forkner believed the plane was safe.

Muilenburg said it “could be” Forkner talked about the simulator. “We don’t know,” he said. “I fully support diving deep into this and understanding what he said and what he meant.”

Cruz pointed out that Gustavsson, the recipient of the texts, still works at Boeing.

“Have you had that conversation with him?” he asked.

“Senator, my team has talked with Patrik as well,” Muilenburg said.

“Have you had that conversation,” Cruz emphasized.

“Senator, I have not,” Muilenburg said.

Some of the senators also criticized Boeing for initially only giving the texts to the DOJ and not to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Congress.

Muilenburg said he relied on the company lawyers to give the documents to authorities.

Boeing didn’t respond to requests for comment, but its spokesman previously told The New York Times the company didn’t give the messages to the FAA earlier because of the DOJ’s ongoing criminal investigation.

Regulation Push

Multiple senators called for stricter government oversight of Boeing and criticized the FAA’s practice of delegating a large part of aircraft safety certifications to Boeing engineers working on the FAA’s behalf.

Some also criticized the FAA for having a “cozy” relationship with Boeing.

John Hamilton, Boeing’s vice president and chief engineer, disagreed, saying the relationship is “professional.”

Concerns over the FAA’s coziness to the industry have been raised for decades (pdf, pdf). A 2005 legislative change allowed companies to nominate their own FAA-authorized safety certification personnel. Previously, only the FAA could pick the personnel. Now, it can still reject the company picks.

The years prior to the Lion Air crash, however, have been some of the safest in aviation history, especially for U.S. airlines.

There have only been 6 major or serious accidents involving U.S. major or regional airlines between 2010 and 2017, averaging 0.75 a year, according to National Transportation Safety Board data. That’s down from 4.4 such accidents a year in the decade prior.

Muilenburg said the delegation of safety certification to the industry’s own experts has contributed to that record, though he was open to exploring ways to improve the delegation scheme.

The 737 MAX was grounded by regulators after the second crash, and the planes are not expected to take off again until next year. Boeing has said it has put in place several safety features to prevent a similar accident from happening again. Muilenburg said the company has taken the opportunity to make further safety improvements to 737 MAX as well as to improve its oversight of safety issues.

“We will never forget, and that is our commitment going forward,” he said, addressing the families of the crash victims, some of whom were present.

From The Epoch Times

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