Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the legendary pilot who pulled off the “Miracle on the Hudson,” told a U.S. House committee Wednesday that before the Boeing 737 MAX returns to flight, pilots should be trained on simulators.
“We should all want pilots to experience these challenging situations for the first time in a simulator and not in flight with passengers and crew on board. And reading about it on an iPad is not even close to sufficient,” Sullenberger said, referring to computer training preferred by Boeing.
The company has said a couple of hours on an iPad will be enough to familiarize pilots with how its fix for a suspect flight-control system works, while pilot groups and officials such as Canadian transport minister Marc Garneau have urged more thorough simulator sessions. Simulator training would add to the cost and time needed to bring the MAX fleet back into service.
“These accidents should never have happened,” Sullenberger testified before the House aviation subcommittee, calling the crashes of Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines MAXs a failure of the design and certification system employed by Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“Boeing added MCAS but the existence of it was not communicated to pilots until after the first crash,” Sullenberger said, referring to a flight-control system on the MAX called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. Boeing is relying on a software fix to the system in its ongoing efforts to convince the FAA to recertify the MAX and allow it to return to commercial flight.
Two union officials — one for pilots and another for flight attendants — added to the criticism during the hearing in Washington, D.C.
Sullenberger, who landed a crippled airliner safely on the Hudson River in 2009, said that when such systems are added to planes, human factors must be considered and the design should take into account how many errors will occur, what kind and how consequential they will be.
There shouldn’t be “inadvertent traps” for pilots, said Sullenberger, now retired after flying for 52 years.
The “startle factor” is real and huge, interfering with the ability of pilots to deal with a crisis, he said, noting that the failure of a single sensor on the ill-fated planes wrongly set the MCAS systems in motion, sent them into a forced dive and created confusion for pilots.
Other pilots likely would have responded the same as those involved in the crashes, Sullenberger told the committee. Some pilots have been outspoken in blaming the actions of the pilots of a Lion Air flight that crashed in October and an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March, killing 346 people in total.
Sullenberger said he doubted that any U.S. pilots practiced handling the specific MCAS malfunction until it happened on the two MAX jets that crashed.
Daniel Carey, the president of the pilots’ union at American Airlines, said Boeing’s zeal to minimize pilot-training costs for airlines buying the 737 MAX jet contributed to design errors and inadequate training. That has left a “crisis of trust” around aviation safety, he said.
Carey said video training for pilots on the MCAS updates would be enough to get the planes back into the air, but he advocated simulator training during each pilot’s periodic training updates.
Former FAA chief Randy Babbitt said his old agency too readily accepted Boeing’s design changes on the MAX, and pilots should have been better trained. He cited complacency as a danger after years of safety success.
Sara Nelson, president of the largest flight attendants’ union, also criticized Boeing and the FAA, although she acknowledged she has recently noticed “a chastened tone” from the company. She said the FAA needed more funding.
As the hearing unfolded in Washington, the head of the pilots’ union at Southwest Airlines in Dallas said his group will seek compensation from Boeing for lost flying assignments and the costs of complying with a Justice Department subpoena for its records, sought as part of the government’s criminal investigation into Boeing.
Boeing has yet to testify at several congressional hearings looking into the crashes.
Material from the Associated Press is included in this story.