U.S. investigators began an inquiry into a stall-prevention feature in Boeing Co.’s 737 Max jets just weeks after a Lion Air jet plunged into the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia, people familiar with the matter said.
A law enforcement agent with the Transportation Department Inspector General’s office contacted at least one Federal Aviation Administration official a few weeks after the crash to ask about how the system was certified, said one of the people, who asked not to be named because the probe is confidential.
Another facet has focused on why Boeing didn’t flag the feature in pilot manuals, said another person. The Justice Department is also using a grand jury to help gather information, Bloomberg has reported.
The investigation into the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, has taken on new urgency since an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 fell from the sky minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa earlier this month. The U.S. probe will likely determine the consequences for Boeing and its principal regulator as the planemaker works to shore up confidence in its largest source of profit. Congressional hearings on the crashes are set to begin next week.
“If I were a prosecutor, I would be looking at mail and wire fraud,” said Gene Rossi, who spent three decades trying civil and criminal cases for the U.S. Justice Department. He said investigators are likely to examine whether documents related to the 737 Max exchanged between the FAA and Boeing contained any falsehoods, and whether company executives made any false statements to regulators.
“It could be a treasure trove — if it’s there — but if I were a prosecutor I would definitely look at it,” said Rossi, who now is with Carlton Fields PA in Washington and is not involved in the Boeing investigation.
Representatives of Boeing, the Transportation Department, the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment.In the aftermath of the two accidents — which killed a combined 346 people — regulators around the world grounded Boeing’s best-selling jetliner. The Transportation Department ordered a full audit of the Max’s 2017 certification.
“The certification of the Max is and should be under increased scrutiny,” Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airline Pilots Association, or SWAPA, said in a March 20 letter to members of the union.
In addition to the probes, he cited “ongoing questions about FAA funding, budgeting, staffing and oversight of Boeing. Questions about increased digitization of an existing aircraft should be examined.”
There’s no explanation of MCAS, nor the steps needed to counter it in U.S. and European pilot manuals. Boeing reasoned that pilots were already drilled to counter similar behavior by the 737’s horizontal stabilizer by running through a checklist and flipping two center console switches. The FAA reviewed Boeing’s analysis and agreed.
The MCAS does make an appearance in American Airlines Group Inc.’s flight crew operations manual — in a section that lists acronyms.
“It is still very disturbing to us that Boeing did not disclose MCAS to the operators and pilots,” Weaks said, noting the planemaker’s statements at the time that it didn’t want to overload aviators. “The methodology should and will be examined.”
The system had baffled pilots by pushing the Lion Air plane’s nose downward about two dozen times, exerting more and more force until they lost control. The same measure had kicked in with alarms blaring shortly after takeoff on a flight the evening before the October crash. A pilot riding in the jumpseat suggested the crew flip switches that cut power to the haywire system.
MCAS was supposed to counteract the changed center of gravity on the Max, which boasts larger and more powerful engines than its 737 predecessors. The software intervenes automatically, without a pilot’s knowledge, when just one of two sensors indicates the aircraft is at risk of a stall. The so-called angle-of-attack vane provided a faulty reading to the Lion Air crew.
Boeing is dealing with internal reverberations as it prepares a software update that would be designed to address the system’s apparent shortfalls, Randy Tinseth, a marketing vice president at the company, told a Bank of America Corp. conference in London on Thursday.
“Every life lost on a Boeing airplane is felt deeply throughout the organization,” Tinseth said. “We design, build, test, and support these airplanes with the sole intention of getting people safely from where they are to where they want to be.”
Boeing has tested the upgrade in simulators as well as via flight-testing, and expects the FAA to certify it in “coming weeks,” Tinseth said. Among the changes: data from both angle-of-attack sensors will be compared to determine if MCAS should operate, and the system will no longer trigger repeatedly.
SWAPA and other pilot unions have been working with Boeing to test and validate the software changes, Weaks said, but would still like to know more about the design and testing of the algorithm that activates MCAS. They’ve also previewed Boeing’s new computer-based training, which will require pilots to complete a test before they fly the Max, he said.
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