Acting Federal Aviation Administration chief Daniel Elwell will tell a Senate hearing Wednesday that “Boeing submitted … to the FAA for certification” its proposed flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX on January 21, according to a copy of his prepared remarks obtained by the Seattle Times.
That’s nearly seven weeks before the fatal crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 that killed 157 people.
Elwell’s testimony says “the FAA’s ongoing review of this software installation and training is an agency priority.”
Yet the revelation that the agency had at least an early version of Boeing’s software patch in January is sure to raise the question of whether it could have been approved and deployed to the worldwide MAX fleet earlier, before the Ethiopian accident.
Boeing’s software update is intended to address flaws in a new flight control system, called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), that Boeing introduced on the MAX. That system is suspected of causing the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in October, in which 189 people died, with indications that it may also have played a role in the Ethiopian crash this month.
Clearly great care must go into the assessment of any change to an airplane system to ensure it’s safe and doesn’t inadvertently cause new problems.
Elwell will testify that since January the FAA has been doing intensive testing of the updated Boeing system, according to his prepared remarks.
“To date, the FAA has tested this enhancement to the 737 MAX flight control system in both the simulator and the aircraft. The testing, which was conducted by FAA flight test engineers and flight test pilots, included aerodynamic stall situations and recovery procedures,” he’ll testify.
FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said that testing was done “with prototypes and early versions” of Boeing’s software update.
He said the safety agency is expecting to get only this week from Boeing “the service-ready product for evaluation.”
New light on MCAS safety
Elwell’s statement to the Senate subcommittee on aviation also addresses the FAA’s original certification of the 737 MAX in 2017, which as the Seattle Times reported has drawn criticism from some of the agency’s own technical staff for having delegated too much of the system evaluations to Boeing itself and providing FAA staff insufficient time for proper review of those evaluations.
In particular, the scrutiny of the new of the new MCAS system during certification appears with hindsight to have been inadequate.
Yet Elwell will testify that “FAA engineers and flight test pilots were involved in the MCAS operational evaluation flight test. The certification process was detailed and thorough.”
However, he adds in his written testimony, “but, as is the case with newly certified products, time yields more data to be applied for continued analysis and improvement.”
“As we obtain pertinent information, identify potential risk, or learn of a system failure, we analyze it, we find ways to mitigate the risk, and we require operators to implement the mitigation,” Elwell’s testimony states. “That is what has happened in the case of the 737 MAX.”
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