Boeing prepares to brief pilots and regulators on 737 Max software fix during meeting

Posted at 8:17 AM, Mar 27, 2019

Officials from across the aviation world will convene at Boeing's sprawling production facility outside of Seattle Wednesday as the company tries to restore industry confidence in its safety protocols and the airworthiness of its signature plane, which was downed twice under apparently similar circumstances in the past six months.

More than 200 airline pilots, technical leaders and regulators were invited to the session that will center on the Boeing 737 Max and a software update that is said to resolve issues associated with a faulty piece of software blamed by aviation authorities for the October crash of a Lion Air plane in Indonesia.

Investigators have drawn similarities between the flight data from that crash and the Ethiopian Airlines crash earlier this month that killed 157 people.

The gathering comes in a crisis moment for the iconic American company, now under criminal scrutiny by the Justice Department for its certification and marketing of the 737 Max plane.

Boeing's stock market value has taken a hit two weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration, and regulators around the world, ordered the 737 MAX fleet temporarily grounded.

The gathering Wednesday will also serve as counter-programming for a highly anticipated Senate hearing in Washington, DC, where lawmakers are expected to press regulators for changes to the aircraft certification process in the wake of the two crashes.

Boeing plans to make their final submission of compliance documents for the update to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, software to the FAA by the end of the week, a Boeing official said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the industry officials at the gathering will hear a presentation from the company's chief pilot for commercial airplanes, Craig Bomben, and Mike Sinnett, the vice president of airline programs for Boeing Commercial planes, according to a Boeing spokesman.

Software designers at Boeing developed the update to the system after extensive engineering analysis, design, and verification, the official said, and first submitted a proposed certification plan for the update to the FAA on January 21.

The MCAS system was added to the 737 MAX to compensate for a shift in the center of gravity of the plane from the original 737 model brought about by changes including the placement of new fuel-efficient engines.

The system is designed to automatically command a plane to pitch down if it senses an imminent stall. Investigators in Indonesia blamed a malfunctioning sensor for feeding incorrect data to the system in the Lion Air crash, leading the pilots to fight the automatic software as it continued to push the nose of the plane towards the ocean below.

Boeing pilots worked with the company's software design team throughout months of production to incorporate multiple layers of protection in the event of sensor errors or other erroneous inputs, the Boeing official said.

The updated software will also draw data from two sensors, instead of one, CNN has reported.

Simulator operators at Boeing programmed test flights of the new software with "the most challenging scenarios," mimicking multiple failure situations, the official said.

Boeing pilots later conducted a certification flight with the FAA on March 12, two days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, to demonstrate to regulators that the updated software met certification requirements, the official said.

On Saturday, the three US airlines that fly the 737 Max ran successful flights on a simulator designed to recreate the Lion Air flight with both the current and the updated software at the Boeing facility in Renton, Wash.

Pilots have said their training on the 737 Max consisted of a short, self-administered online course that made no mention of the new MCAS system and how to disable it in a situation that the pilots on the Lion Air, and likely the Ethiopian Airlines flights, faced.

As they battled the uncooperative and diving plane last year, the pilots on the doomed Lion Air flight attempted a routine maneuver to try and stabilize the plane by triggering a switch near the steering wheel approximately three dozen times, according to a report by Indonesian investigators.

But the force of the software continued to send the plane downward until it reached an angle that would have been unrecoverable for the pilots.

To shut down the MCAS software, the lead pilot would have had to turn around and flip two switches behind him, a move that a representative for American Airline's pilots union called a "tremendous leap of logic."

"There's no intuitive connection between those two things," Captain Jason Goldberg said, referring to what pilots would have been fighting with the MCAS software and this two-switch solution.

"We have very well-trained pilots all over the world but a scenario involving pre-briefed pilots who know what's coming in a simulator should not be confused with a real life emergency involving a system that pilots did not even know existed prior to the event," Goldberg told CNN after the Saturday session.