A government report says Boeing has failed to provide regulators with documents of changes it made to a key system that was blamed for two fatal crashes on its 737 Max jet, and officials responsible for approving the aircraft did not know how forcefully the system could push the nose of the plane down.
Government personnel involved in flight testing were aware of changes Boeing had made to the flight control system, but engineers responsible for certifying the aircraft were not, according to the report, expected to be released Wednesday.
Engineers from the Federal Aviation Administration have only extensively investigated the flight control system, called MCAS, after the first crash off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018.
In that crash and less than five months later in Ethiopia, MCAS pushed the nose of every plane down and pilots were unable to regain control. The crashes killed 346 people and led regulators around the world to ground every Boeing 737 Max – nearly 400 of them.
This week, Boeing and the FAA started certifying flights using FAA test pilots. If the FAA considers the flights to be satisfactory, it could allow airlines to resume use of the aircraft later this year, which would be a huge victory for Boeing, even though the company faces dozens of wrongful death lawsuits filed by families of passengers.
Many of the findings in the report by the Acting Inspector General of the Transportation Department have been previously published in news reports. But the report provides more evidence for lawmakers seeking to review the FAA’s new aircraft approval process.
The report was requested by transportation secretary Elaine Chao and conference leaders, including Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., And Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Whose committees investigate the FAA’s approval by the Max.
Commenting on the report, FAA said that Inspector General’s opinion “will help FAA better understand some of the factors that may have contributed to the accidents and ensure that these types of accidents never recur.” The agency said it was working on improvements to the aircraft certification process.
In a statement, Boeing spokesman Bernard Choi said the company ensures that improvements to Max have been “extensively and thoroughly tested.” When the plane returns, he said, “it will be one of the most thoroughly researched planes in history, and we have full confidence in its safety.”
The Inspector General’s report is a timeline of the aircraft’s history, from design work in 2012 to 2019 when the aircraft was grounded.
In early development of the Max, Boeing indicated that MCAS would not be activated often, so the system did not receive a detailed assessment from FAA. In 2016, as the plane went through test flights, Boeing changed MCAS to increase its power to turn nose down under certain conditions. But the company has not submitted any documents to the FAA describing this change, the Inspector General found.
The FAA flight team personnel knew, “but the main FAA certification engineers and the personnel responsible for approving the level of pilot training told us they were not aware of the MCAS review,” said the inspector general.
The FAA began revising its MCAS certification more than two months after the Indonesian crash. It was the first time that agency engineers had reviewed the system in detail, the report said.
As revealed at a House Transportation Committee hearing last year, an FAA analysis estimated that Max planes could crash 15 more times if MCAS were not repaired. However, the agency kept the plane flying as Boeing began repairing the system, a task Boeing was expected to complete in July 2019.
The second Max crash occurred in March 2019.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report before its publication. The findings were previously reported by Reuters.
David Koenig can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/airlinewriter
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