Before pilots can fly the Boeing 737 MAX, they must receive full-motion flight simulator training on specific failure scenarios that occurred on the two MAX crash flights in Indonesia and Ethiopia, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said in a report released Wednesday.
The release of the FAA recommendations for minimum pilot training is one of the few remaining steps before the agency can unground the MAX.
The simulator training will include how to manually adjust the tail to stop an uncommanded nose-down pitch and how to recognize what’s going on and prioritize corrective action when multiple alerts are triggered on takeoff or landing.
The safety agency invited comment from interested parties by Nov. 2, after which submissions must be considered and the minimum training requirements finalized. That means a formal directive to unground the MAX is unlikely to come sooner than mid-November.
The draft document from the FAA’s Flight Standardization Board (FSB) covers pilot procedures for all models of the 737, with a “special emphasis” section focused on the MAX’s revamped flight-control software that activated erroneously on the two crash flights and forced the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines jets into fatal nose dives.
Boeing has updated this software — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — to fix the design flaws that made it so aggressive.
The proposed minimum training measures require pilots to practice handling various failure scenarios in a full-motion flight simulator. During original certification of the MAX, Boeing discouraged airlines — specifically including Lion Air of Indonesia — from making their pilots undergo expensive simulator training.
After a public outcry when that was revealed, Boeing reversed its stance in January and now the FAA will make simulator training mandatory.
The proposed simulator work includes turning off the electrical connection to the jet’s horizontal tail, which swivels to pitch the plane nose-down or nose-up, and instead moving it manually using a wheel in the cockpit.
On the Ethiopian Airlines crash flight, the pilots could barely move the manual wheel because the jet had gathered too much speed, which increased the aerodynamic forces on the horizontal tail — known as the stabilizer — and effectively jammed the movable surfaces in a nose-down position.
The emergency situation in which the horizontal tail moves uncommanded by the pilot is referred to as a “runaway stabilizer.”
“Training must emphasize runaway stabilizer recognition and timely pilot actions required,” the FSB report states.
Responding to what happened on the Ethiopian Airlines crash, this recommendation adds that the training must emphasize to pilots that before hitting the stabilizer cutout switches that would deactivate MCAS, they need to ease the aerodynamic forces on the tail by first moving the stabilizer nose-up using the electric thumb switches on the control column.
The FAA proposal does not specifically mandate training in a procedure that used to be part of pilot manuals and that some have argued should be brought back: the “roller-coaster” technique whereby a pilot, before attempting to pull the nose up manually, can ease the forces on the tail by momentarily relaxing the control column pressure.
This technique, which a pilot can repeat as necessary until the forces are reduced, is akin to how one might reel in a fish on a taut line. But it’s a procedure that in an emergency where the plane is diving nose-down requires some nerve and skill —because momentarily relaxing the grip on the control column will initially make the nose dip a little more.
After the FAA announced in August the proposed changes to the 737 MAX design, the union representing American Airlines pilots — the Allied Pilots Association (APA) — late last month submitted a response recommending that training on this old technique be revived.
“Pilot reaction times and efforts to achieve perfect execution during this flight critical malfunction, combined with the potential trouble in reducing control column forces … could make manual trimming very difficult” without knowledge of this technique, the APA submission stated.
The APA will likely resubmit this recommendation in response to the FSB report.
Coping with multiple cockpit warnings
The simulator training includes adjusting the tail manually during an approach and go-around, responding to an erroneous angle of attack (AOA) alert on takeoff that triggers several different cockpit warnings and activation of a new alert indicating the stabilizer is out of position.
Another part of the training covers how a pilot must cope with potentially confusing warning alerts, which investigations identified as a serious contributing factor in both crashes.
The simulator training must include scenarios “where a single malfunction results in multiple flight deck alerts that require timely pilot actions to include recognition and interpretation of the non-normal condition and prioritization of the required pilot actions,” the report states.
Pilots must review “non-normal” checklists that cover what to do in seven different emergency scenarios.
The publication of the training details follows an evaluation of the proposed pilot training that the FAA conducted in London jointly with the civil aviation authorities of Brazil, Canada and the European Union.
The review by the FAA and the three international regulators — a panel known as the Joint Operational Evaluation Board — added some refinements to the language in one non-normal checklist. This relates to the procedure a pilot must follow if a warning pops up indicating that the airspeed figure shown on the instrument panel could be faulty.
The draft training recommendation document is posted on the FAA website.
Comments from the public and industry experts can be submitted online or via regular mail.