Blame for the 737 Max
Flying|January - February 2021
The FAA designee program is too big to fail.
LES ABEND

Readers of this publication are more intimate than most with the circumstances surrounding the tragedy of the Boeing 737 Max, but just as a review, the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 five months later are all attributed to the malfunction of the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system.

Boeing claimed that the MCAS system was designed to create the same flight-control feel as the previous versions of the airplane, as well as compensate for the tendency of the more-forward-mounted, underslung engines to potentially raise the nose to a critical angle of attack at lower speeds and high power during manual flight operations.

In addition to software flaws, typical Boeing redundancy was not included in the MCAS. If a single failure occurred, notably the angle of attack sensors, the stabilizer trim would activate in the nose-down direction, potentially overpowering the crew. Adding salt to the wounds, reference to the function of the MCAS was absent from pilot manuals. As investigations progressed, it was determined that the manufacturer’s emergency- checklist fix for a malfunction, the runaway- stabilizer trim procedure, was inadequate.

Considering the tragedy of 346 lives lost, now what? As with all airplane accidents, more than one culprit is involved. Though the MCAS has received its fair share of the blame, the system is just the Band-Aid to the problem. The real problem is far below the surface and more difficult to address because it’s not tangible.

The issue begins with a long-established FAA program called the Organization Designation Authorization, whose origin can be traced back to 1926 with the advent of an aeromedical branch within the Bureau of Air Commerce, which formed the basis for the network of aeromedical examiners. Pilots who seek medical certificates are very familiar with this examination process. It is performed by private-sector doctors appropriately ordained and trained by the FAA.

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