Reg­u­la­tors chal­lenge Boe­ing to prove Max jets are safe

The Olympian - - Front Page - BY DAVID KOENIG AND TOM KR­ISHER As­so­ci­ated Press

Avi­a­tion reg­u­la­tors world­wide laid down a stark chal­lenge for Boe­ing to prove that its grounded 737 Max jets are safe to fly amid sus­pi­cions that faulty soft­ware might have con­trib­uted to two crashes that killed 346 peo­ple in less than six months.

In a key step to­ward un­earthing the cause of the Ethiopian Air­lines crash, flight recorders from the shat­tered plane ar­rived Thurs­day in France for anal­y­sis, although the agency in charge of the re­view said it was un­clear whether the data could be re­trieved. The de­ci­sion to send the recorders to France was seen as a re­buke to the United States, which held out longer than most other coun­tries in ground­ing the jets.

Boe­ing ex­ec­u­tives an­nounced that they had paused de­liv­ery of the Max, although the com­pany planned to con­tinue build­ing the jets while it weighs the ef­fect of the ground­ing on pro­duc­tion.

In Ad­dis Ababa, Ethiopia, an­gry rel­a­tives of the 157 peo­ple who were killed Sun­day stormed out of a meet­ing with air­line of­fi­cials, com­plain­ing that they were not get­ting enough in­for­ma­tion.

The U.S. Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion grounded the planes Wed­nes­day, say­ing reg­u­la­tors had new satel­lite ev­i­dence that showed the move­ments of Ethiopian Air­lines Flight 302 were sim­i­lar to those of Lion Air Flight 610. That flight crashed into the Java Sea off In­done­sia in Oc­to­ber, killing 189 peo­ple.

The Max jets are likely to be idle for weeks while Boe­ing tries to as­sure reg­u­la­tors around the world that the planes are safe.

At a min­i­mum, avi­a­tion ex­perts say, the plane maker will need to fin­ish up­dat­ing soft­ware that might have played a role in the Lion Air crash. Reg­u­la­tors will wait for

more de­fin­i­tive ev­i­dence of what caused both crashes. Some in­dus­try of­fi­cials think the plane maker and U.S. reg­u­la­tors may be forced to an­swer ques­tions about the plane’s de­sign.

Boe­ing said it sup­ports the ground­ing of its planes as a pre­cau­tion­ary step, while re­it­er­at­ing its “full con­fi­dence” in the safety of the 737 Max. The com­pany has pre­vi­ously char­ac­ter­ized the soft­ware up­grades as an ef­fort to make a safe plane even safer. En­gi­neers are mak­ing changes to the sys­tem de­signed to pre­vent an aero­dy­namic stall if sen­sors de­tect that the jet’s nose is pointed too high and its speed is too slow.

Satel­lite-based data showed that both the Ethiopian Air­lines and Lion Air planes flew with er­ratic al­ti­tude changes that could in­di­cate the pi­lots strug­gled to con­trol the air­craft. Both crews tried to re­turn to the air­port but crashed, killing ev­ery­one on board.

How long the planes stay grounded de­pends largely on what in­ves­ti­ga­tors find on the cock­pit voice and flight data recorders, said Peter Goelz, a for­mer man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board.

If the recorders in­di­cate a man­u­fac­tur­ing prob­lem or a soft­ware glitch in the anti-stall sys­tem, the planes could stay on the tar­mac for a long time. But if the crash was caused by pi­lot er­ror, then the prob­lem could be cor­rected by train­ing, and the ground­ing could be short, Goelz said.

Ethiopian Air­lines says its pi­lots re­ceived spe­cial train­ing on how to deal with the Max’s anti-stall soft­ware.

The French air ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion au­thor­ity, known by its acro­nym BEA, said Thurs­day that it will han­dle the anal­y­sis of the flight recorders, of­ten re­ferred to as a plane’s black boxes. The U.S. Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board sent three in­ves­ti­ga­tors to help.

Ethiopian in­ves­ti­ga­tors likely avoided send­ing the data to the U.S. be­cause the FAA cer­ti­fied the air­wor­thi­ness of the Max and has a re­la­tion­ship with man­u­fac­turer Boe­ing, said Goelz, who is now an avi­a­tion con­sul­tant.

“I think Ethiopia wanted to choose an in­ves­tiga­tive part­ner that clearly didn’t have a dog in the fight,” Goelz said.

Key con­gress­men say they will in­ves­ti­gate why the FAA ap­proved the Max with­out re­quir­ing more train­ing for pi­lots.

The Max is the lat­est up­grade to the Boe­ing 737, which has been fly­ing since the late 1960s. Be­cause its en­gines were larger and heav­ier than on pre­vi­ous 737s, they were placed higher and far­ther for­ward on the wings. That cre­ated con­cern that the plane might be slightly more prone to an aero­dy­namic stall if not flown prop­erly, so Boe­ing de­vel­oped soft­ware to pre­vent that.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors look­ing into the In­done­sian crash are ex­am­in­ing whether the soft­ware au­to­mat­i­cally pushed the plane’s nose down re­peat­edly, and whether the Lion Air pi­lots knew how to solve that prob­lem by throw­ing tog­gle switches and can­cel­ing the au­to­mated nose-down com­mands.

The ground­ing was ex­pected to cause min­i­mal dis­rup­tion for trav­el­ers, in part be­cause the Max is so new that that it ac­counts for a small per­cent­age of flights.

In the U.S., South­west is likely to be most af­fected. The air­line, which has 34 of the 72 U.S.-based Max planes that were in op­er­a­tion, can­celed 39 flights Thurs­day due to the ground­ing.

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