After piloting a Boeing 737 MAX on a test flight Wednesday, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) boss Steve Dickson — the authority who must give the final go-ahead for the plane to be ungrounded — declared himself satisfied with the updated jet’s handling in the air.
“I liked what I saw on the flight this morning,” Dickson said. “I felt very comfortable and very prepared based on the training.”
Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines captain, was in Seattle on Monday and Tuesday to complete the training, including time in a flight simulator, now proposed for pilots before they can fly the MAX.
On Wednesday, he took off from Boeing Field just before 9 a.m. He flew east to Moses Lake, where he landed the jet, then returned to Seattle after almost two hours in flight.
The flight included practicing high angle-of-attack patterns, activating the flight control software — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — that went wrong on the MAX crash flights in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.
During the 19-month grounding, Boeing redesigned MCAS to be much less aggressive and to ensure it won’t overcome the commands of the pilots as it did in the crash flights.
“I got a chance to see how the new system performed and essentially it’s a much more benign system than the original design,” Dickson said in a post-flight news conference at Boeing’s 737 delivery center at Boeing Field.
Though the pilots in the Ethiopian Airlines flight found that heavy forces on the horizontal tail prevented them from moving it manually, Dickson said he has no concerns on that score. Provided a pilot maintains control, he said, “you aren’t going to have any problems” with moving the tail manually when needed.
Dickson said he had promised soon after taking the helm at the FAA in July 2019 that he wouldn’t approve the MAX to fly again “until I was comfortable putting my family on it.”
Yet on Wednesday some of the families of victims of the two crashes criticized Dickson’s test flight as merely a “a public relations gift” to Boeing.
“It has no statistical validity but creates a sheen of product endorsement,” said Michael Stumo, father of Samya Stumo, who died in the Ethiopian crash.
Dickson responded to that by saying he made the flight to see and feel for himself the outcome of all the redesign work on the airplane.
“This is not a publicity stunt. It’s simply the fulfillment of a commitment,” he said. “I ultimately will be charged with the decision on this aircraft. I believe it’s important for me to lead from the front.”
He added that his flight was not an official part of the MAX’s recertification process, which is not yet complete.
“We’re in the home stretch, but it doesn’t mean we’ll take short cuts,” he said.
Citing “our solemn responsibility,” he said that he wants the public and the families of the victims to know that “when we get through this process we will get it right.”
Winning back the public’s trust
Steps remaining before final clearance of the MAX include publication of an FAA report detailing the required pilot training, with a period for public comment.
And there will be a final review of the MAX’s design documentation by the Technical Advisory Board (TAB) — consisting of experts from nine civil aviation authorities worldwide as well as NASA and the FAA.
Stumo and some of the other family members have publicly called for the FAA to release all the technical data for Boeing’s redesign so that it could be assessed by independent experts.
But Dickson said that isn’t possible as “much of the data being asked for is proprietary” to Boeing.
Instead, he cited the broad international makeup of the TAB review as a reason the public can trust the FAA to get the safety assessment of the MAX right this time around when it had failed on the original certification.
He was also asked at the press conference if the FAA will follow the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in requiring some additional design changes at some point after the MAX returns to service.
The two crashes were triggered by a false angle-of-attack reading from a single sensor. With Boeing’s fix, MCAS now uses two such sensors. EASA wants a third sensor added — not a physical vane but a software-derived “synthetic” measure of the angle of attack — to serve as a check on the true value if one sensor fails.
EASA is also pressing for Boeing to introduce a way to silence the distracting “stick shaker” alarm if it is erroneously triggered.
Dickson’s response first noted that the concerns covered by these proposed design changes also cover previous 737 models, not just the MAX, and therefore “we have hundreds of millions of flight hours” by which to judge the safety of the 737.
“Statistically, it may be the safest airplane that’s ever been built,” he said.
Still, he said the FAA will continue to consider design enhancements for in-service models. And he added that he expects alignment between the FAA and EASA.
“There is very little daylight between the authorities on these issues,” Dickson said.
Responding to the recent final investigation report from the U.S. House Transportation Committee, which offered a scathing critique of the FAA’s original certification of the MAX, Dickson said he welcomes Congress’s push for improved safety.
He said that while Boeing’s wielding undue influence over the safety agency’s decisions has been a concern, that’s no longer the case since the MAX grounding.
Dickson said he’s made it clear to his technical staff overseeing Boeing that “I’ve got their back.”
Summarizing the role of his agency, Dickson said it is essential that airplane manufacturers be held “responsible for the safety of the products they are putting out there” and that the FAA must be in a position to “oversee their design and production effectively.”
“The FAA has done more than any organization in the world to promote aviation safety” he said, and added that its regulatory system “has led to an unprecedented level of safety in the U.S. over the past 20 years.”
“Safety is a journey,” he said. “We can always get better.”