FAA Engineer Says MCAS Should Be Scrapped


The FAA safety engineer who says he should have signed off on the Boeing 737 MAX Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) during the certification process says the system should be scrapped entirely. Joe Jacobsen told the Seattle Times the system addresses relatively minor control feel issues that pilots can easily adapt to compared to the devastating consequences it has shown it can have when it malfunctions. He said he and many other engineers, including those in other countries, believe the plane would be safer without MCAS. The FAA agrees that the plane can be operated safely without MCAS but has rejected eliminating it. 

Jacobsen was an aerodynamics specialist who would have played a key role in assessing MCAS but Boeing didn’t identify it as a new system so it did not get the level of scrutiny that would have brought it to his attention. Jacobsen, who retired from the agency last month, told the Times he and his fellow engineers would have immediately flagged issues with MCAS, particularly its reliance on a single angle of attack sensor (AOA), as design flaws. 

But he told the Times the first he heard of the existence of MCAS was a week after the crash of a Lion Air MAX in Indonesia in October of 2018. “None of us were briefed on the original design and most aspects were delegated to just a small number of Boeing … engineers for approval,” he said in a letter he wrote to the family of one of the victims of the two fatal crashes involving the MAX. He shared the letter with the Times. He said he wrote the letter and agreed to be interviewed by the Times in part because he felt remorse about not being more adamant about being involved of the assessing the aircraft after the first crash. The family member died in the second crash of the type in Ethiopia five months later.

Jacobsen also said the role of the autothrottle in the crashes has been largely overlooked and likely played a critical role, especially in the Ethiopian disaster. Because of faulty sensor data, the autothrottle did not respond to pilot commands to reduce engine thrust during the climbout of the jet so they remained at full power throughout the rest of the flight. Manually turning off the autothrottle was on the new emergency checklist created for the MAX after the first crash but investigators determined the crew of the Ethiopian plane missed that step in the cacophony of alerts that ensued when crash sequence began. There is also no visible or audible warning of an autothrottle failure. Although the crew mostly followed the steps needed to bring the aircraft under control, the screaming engines had pushed the aircraft past its maximum design speed and the pilots couldn’t overcome the aerodynamic forces on the tail to pull it out of its near-supersonic dive. “I think it was just a miss,” Jacobsen told the Times. “I don’t think anyone recognized the Angle of Attack malfunction would also mess with the autothrottle.”

Jacobsen said the litany of procedural, regulatory and technical missteps by the FAA and Boeing uncovered by various investigations are a start at fixing the FAA and restoring its reputation as the gold standard for safety but he also said heads need to roll in the upper floors of the agency. “FAA leadership seems to be denying any wrongdoing,” he said. He said many of the most senior people at the agency are proponents of delegating certification oversight to the manufacturers and they all need to be removed, he said.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. I’ve followed MCAS closely since the Lion Air crash, and correctly predicted the 737 MAX wouldn’t fly for a year.

    What Joe said above makes sense.

    Also, as a software developer, I’m equally concerned with the outsourced systems software.

    I haven’t heard anything reassuring about that software, presumably outsourced to the lowest bidder. It could be a can of worms – nobody has a good experience with version 1.0 of any software.

  2. Yet another example of manufacturers resorting to Rube Goldberg designs to satisfy FAA rules. Add a pinch of “zero tolerance” and mix thoroughly with “one size fits all” and you have the ultimate witch’s brew of unintended consequences.

  3. These issues are part of the cost of policies that destroyed GA: Ripping up any airfield reasonably close to where people want to live or go, letting ambulance chasers destroy companies with known lies, regulating equipment innovation out of existence, whipsawing demand with constant tax changes, allowing evergreen certification, etc. Training costs are sky high because we’ve ruined the benefits of scale. That means you don’t get the best pilots anymore, you get the willing ones.

  4. Speaking as a former 737 Airline Captain, Simulator Instructor, and Check Airman – the elephant that has always been in the room that no one wanted to address – The Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes were caused by a lack of basic airmanship, inadequate training, and limited hand flying ability. In both situations the correct response was to simply click off the automation – i.e. both autopilot and auto-throttle – and fly the airplane. Both disasters should have easily been avoided by a qualified and properly trained crew.

    • Correction: the only people willing to address this issue (poor training) were accused of victim blaming. The system issues that led to the lack of basic airmanship among the two crews will not be fixed until they are acknowledged.

  5. As H L Mencken said: Those who can, Do. Those who can’t, Teach
    Regarding Mr. Jacobsen: Those who can, Do. Those who can’t, Work for the FAA.

  6. The fact it is a retired FAA official should raise an eyebrow… nothing has changed in 25 years.
    The FAA is still not a place where people can voice safety concerns without fear of reprisal. It was this way 25 years ago when I worked there and nothing has changed.
    After what happened to me, I realized the FAA can not and will not change. I was once ignorant and believed they were interested in safety, they are not. You can not ever trust the FAA or anyone else to look out for your safety. They will always look out for their own personal interests first like any other human. They like their jobs and have seen what happens to people that speak up.
    The FAA personnel and management take it personally. It effects their career or someone up the line if something goes wrong. They will almost always cover up. It isn’t that they want you dead. They just don’t want it to effect them. It really doesn’t matter who is elected to public office or who is employed there. The ‘system’ is broken beyond repair. If seen it first hand.
    Sadly, I have no idea how to fix it, or if it even can be fixed. You can’t stop human self preservation. It is so unnatural that when people do go out of there way to preserve others lives without regard to their own, they are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the military when they do…

  7. I often wonder when reading about these two accidents if basic instructors should slide back a little from the core dogma that throttle is for climb and pitch is for speed. Its a useful trope, but it only really applies for stabilized flight. I can see a pilot in a panicked frenzy thinking the autothrottles might be doing the right thing because I want to climb, but if only I were strong enough to overcome the trim and slow this thing down.

    • If the first action had been to shut off autopilot and autothrottle, an uncontrollable overspeed condition would not have occurred.

  8. I totally agree with Lamont C and Mac H. Having flown various iterations of Boeings equipped with G whiz technology, the first sounds in the cockpit should have been click click. Auto throttle and autopilot off and fly what you are getting paid to do. I remember all to well the rolling of eyes by some junior crewmembers that I would hand fly more often than not when conditions allowed and would like them to display enthusiasm for doing likewise. By the end of a three or four day trip, they remembered what they enjoyed about being aviators and came around to my way of thinking.