Within hours after FAA’s grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max 8 and 9 aircraft, pilots and aviation experts began to weigh in on the rationale. The first in the chorus was the Acting Administrator, Daniel Elwell, who opined that, in the face of the immediate action to ground the aircraft taken by European aviation authorities, as well as the increasing public outcry, the FAA had discovered “new evidence” from the site of the recent deadly airline crash in Ethiopia that justified defiance of the aeronautical industry urging a more measured approach.
Specifically, the Acting Administrator, in an interview with CNBC, stated that information made available since March 13 verified that the Ethiopian airline’s flight track “was close enough to the track of the Lion Air flight” that had crashed in Indonesia in October 2018 “to warrant the grounding of the airplanes so that we could get more information from the black boxes and determine if there is a link between the two, and, if there is, to find a fix to that link.” Ultimately, the agency concluded “the full track of the Ethiopian flight was very close to Lion Air,” and, thus, justified the grounding. The remaining question of what potentially caused the similar fatal incidence was, however, left up to other aviation experts.
The most cogent and succinct explanation was offered by commercial pilot and aviation expert Fred Tecce who discussed with Senior Vice President of Media, Communications and Outreach for the Airline Owners and Pilots Association (“AOPA”), Tom Haines, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”). That system automatically adjusts the aircraft altitude, and is the mechanism officials believe to be at the heart of the two accidents.
Tecce concurred that the origin of the problem is the decades old design of this aircraft which was originally meant to accommodate boarding from the tarmac before boarding gates. To adjust to the low-slung aircraft, the engines had to be remounted further back, causing a potential balance problem. Consequently, control inputs and the resulting pitch changes were challenges that had to be overcome in the latest version of the world’s bestselling aircraft. “In order to compensate for what the engineers perceived to be an issue with respect to pitch, they added this MCAS system that operates when the autopilot is off and the angle of attack exceeds certain limitations and when the airplane is banked pretty steeply.” He went on to say that the technology runs the stabilizer pitch down for several seconds and it “reassesses and will start again until it believes the airplane has reached a safe angle of attack, and it operates without the pilots knowing about it.”
Tecce also noted that in the case of the Lion Air Boeing 737 Max crash, “now the airplane is pitching down and actually moving the control wheel will not stop that system. If the pilot uses the trim system on the yoke, the [MCAS] system will stop.” But “if the airplane isn’t in the proper attitude it will reactivate,” further forcing the aircraft downward if pilots fail to recognize the situation and take proper corrective action.
Despite the two dramatically fatal accidents, killing a total of 346 passengers, Tecce did not fault either the aircraft or the FAA for taking a wait and see approach. Rather, he opined that “it’s not the airplane so much as whether or not the manual properly describes what’s going on.” Therefore, even if the aircraft is free of defect, it would behoove the FAA to ensure that its operating manual does not omit discussion of a new system such as MCAS, and, thus, leave pilots struggling for a solution to a potentially dangerous set of circumstances.
Since these comments, the Department of Transportation has initiated a review of FAA’s actions leading up to these events, including subpoena of its documents, based on some initial, and as yet unconfirmed evidence that FAA had delegated some of its safety functions to Boeing. Stay tuned.