WASHINGTON — Senate investigators concluded that Boeing “inappropriately coached” Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) pilots for a simulator test last year conducted during the effort to test and recertify the company’s 737 MAX as safe to fly again after two deadly crashes.
The conclusion is contained in a report issued Friday by the Republican majority in the Senate Commerce Committee on an investigation that was launched after the two MAX crashes but that ultimately broadened to unearth numerous safety problems across the FAA.
A whistleblower who served as an FAA aviation safety inspector told Senate investigators that Boeing officials prompted the FAA test pilots before the test, which was designed to test pilot reactions to an emergency, to be ready to respond.
The FAA inspector alleged the Boeing official told the pilots, “Remember, get right on that pickle switch” — meaning an electrical thumb switch on the control column used to pitch up the jet’s nose.
Even with that prompt, one of the pilots took 16 seconds to respond, four times longer than Boeing and the FAA had assumed.
According to the report, the investigators asked to interview that pilot, but a Transportation department lawyer prohibited the pilot from answering questions about the incident.
“The Committee concludes FAA and Boeing officials involved in the conduct of this test had established a predetermined outcome” to reaffirm their assumptions about pilot reactions, the investigators wrote.
The report implies that the close relationship between Boeing and the FAA, that affected the initial safety certification of the MAX, continued into the effort to reauthorize the jets to fly.
However, a government official speaking on condition of anonymity said the FAA simulator tests in question resulted in a finding that Boeing’s software wasn’t good enough and led to months of additional work, greatly delaying the jet’s recertification.
The July 2019 simulator test was part of a series of simulated flights designed to determine whether pilots could quickly react in time to a condition called a “runaway stabilizer,” where the plane’s horizontal tail begins swiveling automatically so as to push the nose of the jet down. This condition arose in both crashes, which killed 346 people.
Boeing had assumed in the original certification of the MAX that airline pilots would recognize the emergency within a second and respond with corrective action within another three seconds.
The government official familiar with the series of FAA tests in June and July of 2019 questioned the conclusions of the Senate investigators.
“Numerous FAA test pilots independently flew the MAX many times in the aircraft and in a simulator during the evaluation,” the official said. “It was an FAA pilot who discovered this unsafe condition, which led to months of additional redesign work on the MAX.”
That account is consistent with an August 2019 report in The Seattle Times that described simulator tests conducted in June of that year, a month earlier than the tests cited in the Senate report.
In those tests, three FAA test pilots had tested their responses to a software fault causing a runaway stabilizer in a series of simulation runs.
In the first test, though all three managed to recover the aircraft, they concluded that it had taken too long and that a less attentive pilot caught by surprise might have had a worse outcome.
So in a repeat test, the FAA pilots flew the same fault scenario again, this time deliberately allowing the stabilizer to run nose-down for some time before responding. This time, one of the three pilots didn’t manage to recover and lost the aircraft.
As a direct result of those and other similar tests, the FAA’s chief engineering test pilot, Kevin Greene, after testing the situation himself, ruled that the condition was catastrophic and demanded additional redesign work on the MAX.
One change was that Boeing redesigned the jet’s computer architecture to take input from both flight-control computers at once instead of using only one on each flight. This change alone produced months of delay.
In a statement, Boeing did not address the specifics in the Senate report, saying only that the company will “take seriously the Committee’s findings and will continue to review the report.”
The FAA in a short statement said it is reviewing the Senate report and is “confident that the safety issues that played a role in the tragic accidents involving Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 have been addressed.”
The 100-page Senate Commerce Committee report, which relies on thousands of documents and allegations from 57 whistleblowers, outlines problems with the FAA’s oversight of the aviation industry.
Investigators concluded that whistleblowers regularly face retaliation and that private companies seek help from agency managers when inspectors seek to enforce safety rules. The report says “systemic deficiencies” at the FAA pose an “unnecessary risk to the flying public.”
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the committee’s chairman, said the investigation’s findings were troubling. “The report details a number of significant examples of lapses in aviation safety oversight and failed leadership in the FAA,” Wicker said in a statement.
Wicker and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the panel’s top Democrat, have proposed legislation to give the FAA greater independence from the industry and to strengthen whistleblower protections. The House passed a similar bill in November.
The Senate committee’s report comes a month after the FAA lifted its ban on the jetliner, which had been grounded for 20 months.
The two crashes, in Indonesia and Ethiopia, occurred five months apart and brought intense scrutiny to one of the United States’ most storied companies and the FAA.
Multiple investigations found issues with the process that the FAA followed for certifying that the newest version of Boeing’s 737 was safe, while raising questions about whether the agency was too deferential to the manufacturer.
In signing the order that allowed the jets to resume service, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said the global aviation community could be certain that the 737 MAX was safe to fly. “We have not left anything to chance here,” he said. “I would put my own family on it, and we will fly on it.”
American Airlines will be the first U.S. carrier to resume 737 MAX service. The airline will offer one daily round trip between Miami International and New York’s LaGuardia airports beginning Dec. 29, then will expand the number of the planes in operation next year.
Senate investigators said the FAA and DOT were reluctant to take part in the committee’s review, delaying the release of documents to the committee and failing to make employees available for interviews.
“The level of cooperation by the FAA and DOT has been unacceptable and at times has bordered on obstructive,” investigators wrote.
While a similarly scathing report by the House Transportation Committee was more focused on problems with the initial design and approval of the MAX, the Senate panel’s review was sweeping. It encompassed allegations about Southwest Airlines, cargo carrier Atlas Air, the training of FAA inspectors and the safety of small operators in Hawaii.
The report identified ongoing concerns with the FAA’s oversight of Southwest, saying agency leaders repeatedly failed to act when safety issues were raised.
The report cited an instance in October 2019 when the director of the agency’s office of audit and evaluation recommended that 49 planes Southwest purchased from foreign carriers be grounded until they could be properly inspected.
Dickson refused, giving the airline months to complete work to fix the problems, according to the report.
In a statement, Southwest said it has worked to improve its practices and oversight, adding, “The success of our business depends, in and of itself, on safety, and while we work to improve each and every day, we do not tolerate any relaxing of standards that govern ultimate safety across our operation.”
Whistleblowers who contacted the committee also provided examples of communication between FAA managers and those at companies they are charged with overseeing. The communications, according to the report, “clearly supported the perception of ‘coziness.’ “
Former FAA senior managers who now work in the private sector continue to deal directly with former supervisors and subordinates in their new jobs. A senior manager who retired from the government in 2016 serves as senior director of regulatory compliance and director of maintenance at Southwest Airlines, according to the report.
And a senior official at the airline told investigators that the company traded on its relationship with one of the FAA’s top officials to get “favorable treatment” from a local agency office.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates contributed to this report.
This story was corrected a few hours after publication. In a section inserted by the Seattle Times into this Washington Post story, an earlier version misidentified the “pickle switch.” It’s the thumb switch on the pilot’s control column.