Boeing submitted an early version of a software fix for the 737 Max aircraft to the US aviation regulator weeks before an Ethiopian Airlines crash that has intensified scrutiny of how planes are certified to be safe by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Daniel Elwell, acting FAA administrator, said in prepared testimony for a Senate panel hearing on Wednesday that, on January 21, Boeing had presented a proposed fix for the MCAS (manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system) flight control system. It is this which is believed to have gone awry last October in a Lion Air crash that killed 189 people.
An FAA spokesperson said that the January 21 version of the fix for the MCAS “was an early version of the software, which has undergone significant modifications since”.
On March 10, seven weeks after Boeing submitted the proposed fix to the FAA, the Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed in circumstances which Ethiopian officials have said bore “clear similarities” to the Lion Air crash. However, it is not yet known if the latter accident involved the MCAS system.
The goal of the software fix is to prevent the MCAS system from relying on only one external sensor, which could be faulty, to stop the system from misfiring repeatedly if a malfunction occurs.
Mr Elwell is likely to come under intense questioning when he appears before the Senate Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Aviation and Space on Wednesday. Lawmakers are likely to inquire about the delays in rolling out the software fix after the Lion Air crash but also to question whether the FAA works too closely with Boeing in determining whether an aircraft is safe.
Boeing said in a statement that it spent February and March testing the proposed fix submitted to the FAA on January 21. The company said it expected to submit the final version to the FAA at the end of this week.
The Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer said the software was tested on an “engineering verification flight” on February 7. During this, test pilots “exercised various aspects of the software update, checking normal operations and executing numerous conditions with induced failures” similar to those that are believed to have arisen during the Lion Air flight.
The FAA participated in a further certification flight on March 12, two days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash and only a day before the FAA grounded all 737 Max aircraft, Boeing said.
The acting FAA administrator said that his agency’s “oversight approach” would have to “evolve” as aircraft become more complex. However, he defended the FAA’s close collaboration with aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing. He said the FAA retained “strict oversight authority” even when employees of the manufacturer were used as “designee” inspectors as part of the certification process.
On the eve of the hearing, a Southwest Airlines 737 Max plane made an emergency landing at Orlando airport in Florida after experiencing engine trouble. A spokesperson for the airline said the incident was “in no way related” to the MCAS system.
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