Citing a serious flight test incident and lack of design maturity, FAA slows Boeing 777X certification

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Two 777X flight-test planes are parked at Boeing Field on June 18. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

In yet another blow to Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration last month formally denied the jet maker permission to move forward with a key step in certifying its forthcoming giant widebody airplane, the 777X.

In a sternly worded letter dated May 13, which was reviewed by The Seattle Times, the FAA warned Boeing it may have to increase the number of test flights planned and that certification realistically is now more than two years out, probably in late 2023.

That could push the jet’s entry into commercial service into early 2024, four years later than originally planned.

The FAA cited a long litany of concerns, including a serious flight control incident during a test flight on Dec. 8, 2020, when the plane experienced an “uncommanded pitch event” — meaning the nose of the aircraft pitched abruptly up or down without input from the pilots.

Boeing has yet to satisfy the FAA that it has fully understood and corrected what went wrong that day.

The letter was signed by Ian Won, the manager of the local FAA office that judges whether Boeing has met all regulatory standards. He also told Boeing that a critical avionics system proposed for the airplane does not meet requirements.

And he expressed concern about proposed modifications involving late changes to both software and hardware in the electronics of the jet’s flight controls.

“The aircraft is not yet ready,” Won wrote. “The technical data required for type certification has not reached a point where it appears the aircraft type design is mature and can be expected to meet the applicable regulations.”

An FAA official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely, said the drag on 777X certification is now “the subject of a lot of attention” at high levels both within the agency and at Boeing.

Boeing’s last all-new jet, the 787, had to be grounded in 2013 when its batteries smoldered in flight. The next new plane, the derivative 737 MAX, was grounded for 21 months starting in 2019 after flawed new flight controls caused two fatal crashes.

Now the forthcoming 777X is having a troubled certification process. Is this just the FAA getting tough because of all the scrutiny?

The FAA official said that even if the MAX crashes hadn’t happened, the list of serious issues now raised about the 777X would merit rigorous regulatory attention.

Within the FAA, the person said, “there’s a general feeling that Boeing has kind of lost a step,” referring to the slide away from a historic reputation for engineering prowess.

And because of all the missteps, the official added, “the days of Boeing being able to say to the FAA ‘Just trust us’ are long gone.”

In a statement Friday, Boeing said it “remains fully focused on safety as our highest priority throughout 777X development.”

The airplane is undergoing “a comprehensive test program to demonstrate its safety and reliability … to ensure we meet all applicable requirements,” Boeing added.

The FAA in a statement said safety drives its decisions and timelines.

“The FAA will not approve any aircraft unless it meets our safety and certification standards,” the agency said.

FAA exasperated

Boeing launched the 777X at the Dubai Air Show in the fall of 2013, and at that time targeted 2020 as the year it would enter service.

Set to replace the Boeing 747 jumbo and Airbus A380 superjumbo passenger planes — which are no longer built — as the largest airliner in production, the 777X is a stretch version of the successful 777 passenger airliner featuring a new, superlong, carbon composite wing with folding tips and the largest jet engines ever built.

Boeing invested more than $1 billion in a new composites fabrication plant in Everett to build the wings.

Inside the main Everett assembly building, Boeing also installed state-of-the-art, automated stations to robotically assemble the wings — equipment designed by Mukilteo-based engineering company Electroimpact — and completely changed the way the 777 fuselage and wings come together to make assembly more flexible and efficient.

The first of two 777X models and the largest — the 777-9X, which carries 426 passengers in a two-class configuration — made its first flight in January 2020, kicking off the test flight program.

By now, four test planes are flying out of Boeing Field and at least 17 more 777Xs destined for customers Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and All Nippon Airways have rolled out of the factory.

Boeing will have to park those production aircraft and any more built from now through at least late 2023 until certification allows their delivery.

The FAA’s letter on the status of 777X certification is addressed to Tom Galantowicz, the head of Boeing’s internal organization consisting of engineers and managers who act as proxies for the federal agency, tasked with testing and verifying that a new airplane design meets safety standards.

The letter denies Boeing a specific approval for the 777-9X called “Type Inspection Authorization” readiness. Without this, Boeing cannot put FAA personnel on board flight tests and begin to collect certification data.

The wording suggests a degree of exasperation with Boeing pushing for TIA when the FAA deems it far from ready.

“The FAA and Boeing have been discussing the TIA readiness of the Boeing Model 777-9 in numerous meetings over the past nine months,” the letter reads, adding that despite Boeing’s assertion that proceeding with TIA “warrants consideration,” the FAA in contrast “considers that the aircraft is not yet ready.”

The letter then lists a host of shortfalls in Boeing’s readiness.

FAA demands data, not promises

Asked about the test flight that experienced the “uncommanded pitch event” in December, Boeing said the plane went on to land safely and that engineers investigated the root cause and have developed a major software update to fix the problem.

In the meantime, until that’s approved, Boeing has given the test pilots instructions on how to avoid the incident recurring so that test flights can continue.

Yet the FAA clearly isn’t satisfied with Boeing’s promise of a software fix.

“After the uncommanded pitch event, the FAA is yet to see how Boeing fully implements all the corrective actions identified by the root cause investigation,” the letter reads.

“Software load dates are continuously sliding and the FAA needs better visibility into the causes of the delays,” it states.

To confirm “the maturity and safety/airworthiness of the aircraft,” the FAA demands comprehensive and documented reviews of the changes resulting from the investigation into the incident, to ensure that a similar problem “will not happen in the future and this is not a systemic issue.”

The FAA separately highlights concern over a critical piece of new avionics on the jet — the Common Core System, a set of shared computing resources critical to the functioning of multiple airplane systems.

Won notes that Galantowicz conceded in a letter to the FAA earlier in May that the CCS has incomplete software and does not meet TIA requirements.

Citing a “lack of data” and the absence of a Preliminary Safety Assessment for the FAA to review, the agency’s letter declares that Boeing hasn’t even met its own process requirements.

Boeing’s CCS “review dates have continuously slid over a year,” the letter notes.

In turning down the 777X for TIA readiness, the FAA also cited a finding that the supplier of the avionics provided “inadequate peer review” in a safety analysis “resulting in inconsistencies … and incorrect reuse of 787 data.”

GE Aviation’s plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, supplies the CCS, which builds upon the similar common core avionics system it designed for the 787.

GE, which touts the CCS as the “central nervous system and brain” of the airplane, deferred comment to Boeing.

Demand for 777X currently near zero

Another problem for the FAA is Boeing’s proposal of late changes to the 777X flight control system.

“Boeing is proposing modifications that will involve firmware and hardware changes to the actuator controls electronics of the Flight Control System,” the FAA states. “Boeing needs to ensure the changes do not introduce new, inadvertent failures modes.”

Other pending modifications to the design of systems around the jet’s horizontal tail or stabilizer, which controls the pitch of the airplane, will change the crew alerts that flag certain system failures.

“Design maturity is in question as design changes are ongoing and potentially significant,” the letter states.

Separately, the letter states in passing that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has also “not yet agreed on a way forward” with regard to 777X certification.

In an emailed response Friday, EASA spokesperson Janet Northcote said the agency is “cooperating closely with the FAA” on 777X certification.

“We are looking closely at the technical files with the FAA and Boeing and this work is still ongoing,” she said.

The FAA’s letter told Boeing that because of the gaps in the 777X technical data, it anticipates a significant increase in the required level of testing and analysis, “and the potential to increase the number of certification flight tests that will need to take place.”

The letter concludes by requesting that Galantowicz’s unit “close these gaps” before submitting any further requests for TIA approval and that “based on the information from Boeing,” 777X certification is realistically more than two years out, in “mid to late 2023.”

Ironically, the only positive for Boeing in this situation is that — because of the pandemic’s destruction of international air travel demand — no airline in the world wants a 777X right now.

When international travel begins to pick up again post-pandemic, airlines will begin service with smaller jets like Boeing’s long-range 787 until long-haul air travel gradually returns to a level approaching what was typical in 2019.

Yet at a Bernstein Research industry conference this month, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun doubled down on the 777X despite all the setbacks. Once the jet is certified, he said, “it will have a 40- or 50-year run, and I think it will be one of the great runs of all time.”

“I have lots of confidence in it,” Calhoun said. “We love it.”

Boeing’s website lists 320 orders for the 777X, though because of the delays airline customers will have the option to cancel some of those and may switch to smaller Boeing jets.

Dubai-based Emirates, the largest 777X customer, reduced its initial order for 150 aircraft to 115, swapping out 35 of the 777Xs for 30 much less expensive 787s.

The original 777 flight test program in the mid 1990s, from first flight to certification, took 10 months. For the 737 MAX, that period was just over 13 months. During the problem-ridden and much delayed development of the 787, first flight to certification took just over 20 months.

The 777X is currently set to reach certification almost four years after first flight.

Citing the delays in getting the plane certified, Emirates airline President Tim Clark has said he doesn’t expect any 777X deliveries until 2024.

Realistically, that’s the earliest any global carrier might want to take delivery of such a huge aircraft. Four years late, that’s when the 777X may finally be ready.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com; .