FAA Seeking 737 Airline Pilots to Test Software on Grounded Max

By Justin Bachman and Alan Levin | August 23, 2019

U.S. regulators are turning to a variety of Boeing Co. 737 Max pilots, including some with relatively little experience, to help test revamped flight-control software aimed at returning the jetliner to commercial service, according to the agency and people familiar with the matter.

The Federal Aviation Administration has asked for “a cross-section of line pilots” from airlines around the world that operated the Max, it said in a statement Thursday. The flight crews are part of the testing process underway before the plane can be returned to service after two crashes in less than five months.

The agency wants to determine how aviators with no more than one year of 737 experience and at least one Max flight react to software updates, said some people familiar with the request, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private.

At one carrier, the FAA asked for two sets of pilots in the testing, one group of seasoned captains and another group of co-pilots with between nine and 18 months of experience on the plane, said one person.

The FAA in its statement disputed that it was seeking relatively inexperienced crews. “The FAA has not specified a certain number of hours of flight experience for these crews beyond the requirement that they have previous experience at the controls of the Boeing 737 Max,” the agency said.

There is no schedule for the tests, the FAA added. They must be completed before the plane re-enters service. Boeing has said it plans to file its formal application to recertify the jet by the end of September.

The request was earlier reported by Reuters. American Airlines Group Inc., Southwest Airlines Co. and United Airlines Holdings Inc. all have Max models in their fleets.

Boeing didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

American regulators grounded the Max March 13 after the second of the crashes. The two accidents killed a total of 346 people.

Safety investigators have linked the crashes, in Indonesia and Ethiopia, to a flight-control feature called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, which pushes the 737 Max’s nose down in certain situations. In June, the FAA identified a separate software problem in which the flight computer tried to lower the jet’s nose in response to a stream of erroneous data.

Like many systems on the plane, the MCAS software was originally approved by the FAA on the assumption that a typical pilot would be able to handle a malfunction and prevent a crash. Calling in pilots from around the world isn’t typically done during certification testing and shows the lengths to which the FAA is going to assure that it understands how pilots will respond to similar emergencies.

Southwest, the largest Max operator, has removed the plane from its schedule until early January. American and United have changed their Max schedules through early November.

–With assistance from Mary Schlangenstein.

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