After the first crash of a 737 MAX last year, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was briefed about the evidence that an automated system on the aircraft may have played a role.
It was then that Daniel Elwell, the FAA’s acting administrator, learned that details of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) weren’t outlined in pilot manuals. Elwell, a former commercial pilot, told a congressional committee Wednesday that his “pilot juices started flowing” after hearing that information and that he wanted further investigation into the matter.
“I, at the beginning when I first heard of this, thought that the MCAS should have been more adequately explained in the ops manual and the flight manual, absolutely,” Elwell told lawmakers.
In that Lion Air crash in October, as well as in the March crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX, investigators suspect that MCAS repeatedly pushed the nose of those planes down after getting faulty data from a sensor. As Boeing works on a software fix to that MCAS system, Elwell said he expects the FAA will amplify the description of it so that pilots will be able to better respond to an anomaly.
At the hearing, Elwell was also critical of Boeing’s handling of a cockpit warning light that would have alerted pilots of a problem with the plane’s angle-of-attack sensors, which MCAS uses to determine when to engage. While Elwell said the warning light was for the sake of maintenance, not flight safety, he said it took Boeing too long — 13 months — to notify the FAA about a software problem that was causing the indicator not to work properly.
“You have our commitment that we’re going to look into that and fix that,” Elwell told lawmakers.
Elwell defended the overall system under which the 737 MAX was certified. He described how the FAA was involved in test flights and in the safety analysis of the MCAS system.
Under the FAA’s delegation system, companies such as Boeing can appoint people to work as the FAA’s “authorized representatives.” A Seattle Times investigation earlier this month detailed how some representatives faced internal pressure and how the FAA’s new system means those representatives no longer report to the FAA but to Boeing managers.
Rep. Rick Larsen, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the House Aviation subcommittee, asked whether Elwell is looking to revert to the older system that gave the FAA more direct oversight of its representatives. Elwell said he’s waiting to see what various investigations and audits reveal.
“If we have robust oversight, and we have all the protections in place to guard against conflicts of interest or undue pressure, which I believe we currently have, it’s a good system,” Elwell said. “But it can always be made better.”
Larsen responded that he wonders whether the system has “over-evolved.”
Larsen began the hearing by saying it would likely be the first in a series of hearings about Boeing’s 737 MAX, which has been grounded after the two deadly crashes.
“The FAA needs to fix its credibility problem,” Larsen said. “The committee will work with the FAA as it rebuilds public and international confidence in its decisions, but our job is oversight and the committee will continue to take this role seriously.”
Some of the Republican members of the committee called for more scrutiny of other aspects of the flights, including the maintenance of the planes, the pilot experience levels and the pilot training programs. Louisiana Rep. Garrett Graves, the top Republican on the aviation subcommittee, praised Elwell for his leadership.
“No matter what other countries say, I’ve not seen anything that questions my confidence in the FAA’s safety judgment to date,” Graves said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon who is the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said Boeing “has yet to provide a single document” in response to the committee’s records requests. He said he’s hopeful Boeing will provide the documents voluntarily.
Boeing has been working in recent weeks to develop a software update to the 737 MAX that would limit the power of the MCAS software.
Elwell said he expects Boeing to make its formal submission for an MCAS software update in the next week or so. He said the FAA will perform flight tests, conduct a thorough safety analysis and determine the level of training needed for the new software. Only after those things are established will the FAA allow the 737 MAX to fly again.
“We’re not going to do it until it’s safe,” Elwell said.