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Volume 26, Number 12c
March 22, 2019
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FBI Investigating 737 MAX Certification Process
Kate O'Connor

The FBI has reportedly joined a criminal investigation into the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX in the wake of the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610, according to The Seattle Times. The report comes after Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao issued a memo (PDF) on Tuesday confirming a previous request for the DOT’s Inspector General to conduct an audit “to compile an objective and detailed factual history of the activities that resulted in the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft.” 346 people were killed in the two MAX crashes, which happened within five months of each other.

The investigation is being conducted by the DOT Inspector General and overseen by the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Department. It has also been reported that, based on information from the Lion Air crash, the MAX certification investigation may have begun prior to the Ethiopian Airlines accident. It is expected that investigators will be looking closely at how the FAA has regulated Boeing and safety certification work performed by company employees for the FAA. Boeing has previously stated that it will cooperate fully with the FAA, DOT and NTSB “on all issues relating to both the Lion Air and the Ethiopian Airlines accidents.”

As previously reported by AVweb, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said on Monday that a software update and new pilot training procedures to address “concerns discovered in the aftermath of the Lion Air Flight 610 accident” will be coming soon. Those updates will need to be approved by the FAA before the MAX stands any chance of being allowed off the ground. Regulators in Europe and Canada have said that they will conduct their own reviews of any fixes Boeing provides.

Data Informs, Data Confuses
Paul Bertorelli

The grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft has produced one of the most bizarre situations in the history of aviation. And what’s driving it, partly, is that modern airliners aren’t just airplanes, but veritable flying rivers spewing gigabytes of data on everything from cabin temperature to engine vibration, all of it recorded and quite a bit of it continuously analyzed.

And that’s how we got to the point that while world airlines and regulators finally slapped a universal grounding on the MAX series, three U.S. airlines—Southwest, American and United—continued to fly the airplane after the second crash in Ethiopia earlier this month. Of the three, only Southwest has explained in detail why it still has confidence in the airplane. In this Wall Street Journal report, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the airline’s internal data reviews revealed no anomalies in the MAX that would compromise flight safety. And you can bet they eyeballed the data channels having to do with stab trim, AoA and airspeed sensors, all of which are tied into the airplane’s MCAS stall-protection subsystem.

Southwest has 34 MAX 8’s and according to the company’s website, the airline has accumulated 88,000 hours in 41,000 flights. As airline Big Data goes, that’s a mere droplet, but it’s more than any other U.S. operator has. It's also more than Lion Air and Ethiopia combined. China’s big three airlines have 97 MAX airplanes and may or may not have more operational hours spread among the three.

But Southwest has been the most forthcoming in explaining why it continued flying, even though it now supports the grounding. Not that it has a choice. Southwest’s data-driven confidence raises some tantalizing questions. In the journal interview, Kelly didn’t say if the data showed any MCAS activations during routine flights, but the data has the granularity to do that, and then some. My guess is they didn’t see any MCAS-active events. Boeing said it didn’t originally recommend specific training on MCAS because it thought pilots would rarely see it active.

Just to refresh, MCAS—for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System—is a background subsystem that automatically adds nose-down stab trim at high angles of attack and load factors. It provides envelope protection against stalls and enhances control feel by increasing stick force to offset the MAX’s tendency to pitch up because the heavier engines are mounted further forward than in previous 737 models. It’s active only when the airplane is being hand flown with the flaps up. Flap deployment or autopilot engagement inhibits it.

Knowing that, is it possible that because U.S. pilots are trained to use the automation routinely—including the autopilot—they simply never remotely got near the MCAS threshold? It’s fashionable to complain about automation eroding piloting skills and the magenta line kids now have kids of their own, but we didn’t drive the accident rate to near zero by practicing hand flying.

Long bony fingers have been pointed at the AoA sensors in the Lion Air accident, but no official findings have been published yet. It could very well be the sensors are simply a distractor not at all related to the crashes. That awaits further revelations, but Boeing has said it reworked the airplane software to accommodate input from both AoA sensors, rather than just one, as was the case when the airplane was certified. While we’re waiting, the second question is if the sensors were faultily designed or fabricated, wouldn’t Southwest’s data have picked up such a fault? Or did Lion Air and Ethiopia get the only two bad ones in the batch? Kelly didn’t say either way, although he did say he thought Southwest pilots were trained well enough to counter a runaway trim abnormal, which a faulty AoA might trigger. The Journal report quotes American Airlines’ director of safety saying they didn’t see anything in the data, either.

There’s a quite natural tendency to believe both MAX crashes were due to something the pilots did or didn’t do. I’ve thought and said the same myself. But the failure mode may be more insidious than some of us are willing to admit and perhaps a little more difficult to diagnose than we might imagine.

That enigma has resulted in 350-plus spanking new airplanes being grounded that at least two airlines believe are perfectly safe to fly. Like I said, it’s one of the most bizarre turns in aviation history.

Note to Readers: No, it's not something you said. Because of persistent denial of service attacks against AVweb, we're moving the site to another platform. The commenting section will be unavailable for a time. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the site will be better for it in a week or two. Thanks for your patience.

Lion Air CVR Reveals Confusion In The Cockpit
Kate O'Connor

New reports claim that conversations captured by the Lion Air Flight 610 cockpit voice recorder (CVR) confirm that the pilots were unable to diagnose the control issues encountered in the minutes before the accident that claimed the lives of all 189 people onboard on Oct. 29, 2018. Although a complete transcript of the CVR recording has not been released, Reuters reported that its staff had spoken with three people—whose identities were kept anonymous—familiar with the CVR’s contents.

The information shared implies that the pilots were focused on discrepancies between the captain’s and first officer’s displays along with the plane's airspeed. “They didn’t seem to know the trim was moving down,” one of the sources told Reuters. “They thought only about airspeed and altitude. That was the only thing they talked about.” They also said that the captain asked the first officer to check the quick reference handbook. The cockpit voice recorder was recovered in January, more than two months after the crash. The preliminary accident report was released before the CVR was recovered.

Pilots on the 737 MAX’s previous flight experienced similar control issues. It was recently reported by Bloomberg that a pilot jump-seating on that flight “diagnosed the problem and told the crew how to disable [the] malfunctioning flight-control system.” That flight landed safely, which provides some anecdotal evidence for claims by U.S.-based airlines American and Southwest that even if similar problems did arise with their 737 MAXs, their pilots are trained to safely address such issues. Both airlines also told The Wall Street Journal that the data they had gathered from their fleets of 737 MAXs did not support immediately grounding their aircraft after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

As previously reported by AVweb, similarities between the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents led to the grounding of all 737 MAXs in the U.S.—and most of the rest of the world—last week. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has asked the DOT’s Inspector General to audit the FAA’s approval of the Boeing 737 MAX and it is now being reported that the FBI has joined the investigation. On Monday, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said in a statement that the company will soon “release a software update and related pilot training for the 737 MAX that will address concerns discovered in the aftermath of the Lion Air Flight 610 accident.”

Ethiopian Airlines: Pilots Got Post Lion Air Briefing
Paul Bertorelli

Ethiopian Airlines Thursday disputed a New York Times report that claimed the captain of the 737 MAX that crashed on March 10 with the loss of all aboard hadn’t received simulator training on the aircraft. The airline said all of its pilots had completed differences training from the 737 NG to the newer MAX. However, although Ethiopian Airlines has one of the few MAX simulators, the airline didn’t deny the Times report that the captain trained on another simulator.

“The pilots had also been made aware of, and well briefed on the Emergency Airworthiness Directive issued by the FAA following the Lion Air accident,” Ethiopian Airlines’ statement said. “The content of the airworthiness directive has also been well incorporated in all pilot training manuals, operational procedures and working manuals,” it added. A number of other airlines operating the MAX, including Southwest Airlines in the U.S., don’t have dedicated MAX simulators. Pilots were given a tablet-based differences course that initially didn’t include information on the MAX’s MCAS stall protection subsystem. Pilot unions have criticized Boeing for the omission and following the Lion Air MAX crash on Oct. 29, it forwarded additional technical details on MCAS to operators.

Ethiopian Airlines’ statement said, “The B-737 MAX full flight simulators are not designed to simulate the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) problems.”

Cirrus Pilots, Check Your Aileron Bolts
Marc Cook

In this image from the FAA, the arrow shows the correct presence of safety wire securing the bolt head. On the accident SR20, the bolt was missing, presumably from breakage of the safety wire or the failure of maintenance personnel to reinstall it after maintenance.

The FAA issued an Aviation Maintenance Alert this week pertaining to Cirrus SR20 and SR22 aircraft. It calls for closer visual inspection of the safety wire securing the bolt between the roll actuator and the aileron itself. The head of the bolt and the safety wire are visible during the walk-around inspection.

The recommendation comes after the May 2018 crash of an SR20 in Houston. The pilot reported loss of roll control immediately after takeoff, but was able to land straight ahead just beyond the departure end of the runway. According to the FAA, “Examination of the airplane after the accident revealed that the left aileron actuation arm and attach bolt were missing with no associated impact damage. Further investigation indicated that the safety wire was missing from the actuation bolt.”

Naturally, the FAA is recommending all pilots verify the presence of the safety wire before further flight. Because the bolt head faces down, it’s critical that the safety wire is in place to keep the bolt from falling out of the actuator. The FAA says that “Cirrus aircraft will be updating their recommended pilot preflight walk around to better define the examination of the aileron area and the Maintenance Manuals to emphasize the requirement of proper safety wiring of associated hardware. We recommended that all operators adopt the new manual practices and revisions.”

Embraer Getting New CEO
Kate O'Connor

Embraer 195

Image: Embraer

Embraer has announced that CEO Paulo Cesar de Souza e Silva will be stepping down on April 22, 2019, at the end of his current two-year elected term. The announcement comes after one of Silva’s primary initiatives—a partnership with Boeing that will see Boeing take over 80 percent of the Brazilian company’s passenger aircraft business—was approved by Embraer shareholders last month. As previously reported on AVweb, the deal also includes a 49-percent stake for Boeing in the development of the KC-390 multi-mission military transport aircraft.

"In Executive Aviation and Defense, and with the KC 390 joint venture with Boeing, we will expand our international competitiveness and everything indicates that we will have another 50 years of success ahead," said Silva. "I am sure that the new leadership of the company will find fertile ground ahead to expand and consolidate Embraer." The company says its next President and CEO will be recruited externally and announced on or before April 22.

Silva became president and CEO of the Embraer Group in 2016 and has worked for the company for 22 years. In addition to spearheading the partnership with Boeing, his administration is credited with the creation of EmbraerX—a division focused on building “disruptive new businesses”—and Embraer’s Passion for Excellence program, which aims to reduce costs and increase operational efficiency. According to Embraer, Silva has been invited to be a senior advisor to the board.

WAI Wraps Up 2019 Conference
Kate O'Connor

More than 4,500 people attended Women in Aviation International’s (WAI) 30th Annual International Women in Aviation Conference last week. Southwest Airlines captain and former F/A-18 Hornet pilot Tammi Jo Shults, SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell and tactical mission lead on the Mars Curiosity Rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Nagin Cox were among the conference’s keynote speakers. Representatives from 33 countries were present and the exhibit hall hosted 170 separate companies and organizations at the three-day event, which took place in Long Beach, California.

In addition to educational sessions, workshops and Girls in Aviation Day, the conference saw new inductions into WAI’s International Pioneer Hall of Fame. This year’s inductees included Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing’s Defense, Space and Security unit; Mary Golda Ross, the first known Native American female engineer, first female engineer at Lockheed and one of the 40 founding engineers of company’s Skunk Works; and the U.S. Coast Guard’s First Women Aviators and Aviation-Related Enlisted Women, a group of three officers and six enlisted women who “opened the door for future generations of women to pursue their military aviation dreams.”

156 scholarships totaling $875,065 were also distributed at the conference to WAI members for academic use, lifestyle enhancement and flight training. The 2019 scholarships put the total money awarded since 1995 at more than $12 million. Next year’s conference will be held March 5-7, 2020, at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

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Picture of the Week, March 21, 2019
Enroute to Fanes hotel heliport in Italian Alps flying an EC120B helicopter, this particular picture was taken when entering the Alps near Sazburg, Austria. Taken with an iPhone X. Photo by Martin Riha.

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