The most shocking thing about the Seattle Times’ excellent investigation into the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft’s problems is this: it told the Federal Aviation Administration about it 11 days ago, before the Ethiopian 737 crashed, obliterating the lives of 157 people.
Much of the information in the investigation appears to come from inside the FAA, according to Monday’s story in the newspaper.
In a series of damning accusations, the Times found that the FAA, which hasn’t had a permanent administrator since Donald Trump took office, pushed its managers to accept Boeing’s safety assessments of the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), which forces the plane’s nose down in the event it is close to stalling (the failure of the wings to sustain lift).
But those safety assessments failed to reveal that the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded to it, thus forcing the pilot and machine to fight each other. That’s the scenario that, at least so far, seems to be what was happening inside the Ethiopian jet.
Before that crash, however, the Seattle Times told the FAA what it had. The FAA did not respond. Since the crash, the FAA said only that it followed its standard certification process for the jet, but refused to say anything more.
A former FAA safety engineer who was directly involved in certifying the MAX said that halfway through the certification process, “we were asked by management to re-evaluate what would be delegated. Management thought we had retained too much at the FAA.”
“There was constant pressure to re-evaluate our initial decisions,” the former engineer said. “And even after we had reassessed it … there was continued discussion by management about delegating even more items down to the Boeing Company.”
Even the work that was retained, such as reviewing technical documents provided by Boeing, was sometimes curtailed.
“There wasn’t a complete and proper review of the documents,” the former engineer added. “Review was rushed to reach certain certification dates.”
When time was too short for FAA technical staff to complete a review, sometimes managers either signed off on the documents themselves or delegated their review back to Boeing.
“The FAA managers, not the agency technical experts, have final authority on delegation,” the engineer said.
Boeing didn’t tell pilots how the MCAS worked until after an Indonesian 737 crashed.
The data recorders from the second crash have been sent to Paris for examination by French investigators.