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Pilot decisions contributed to Boeing 737 MAX crashes: FAA chief

Washington

UNDER questioning by law-makers on Wednesday, the outgoing chief of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said key decisions made by pilots contributed to the crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets in Indonesia and Ethiopia, killing 346 people.

An automated anti-stall feature on the 737 Max activated when it wasn't supposed to in the October crash in Indonesia, acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said at a House hearing. That sent the plane's nose down repeatedly. The pilots should have responded by turning off the motors to the part of the airplane that was forcing it down, but they didn't, he said.

When the same automated feature, known as the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), mistakenly kicked in less than five months later on the 737 Max involved in the Ethiopia crash, the pilots "didn't adhere to the emergency" directive issued by the FAA in November, Mr Elwell said.

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While the pilots did turn off the motors, they didn't control the plane's speed, he said of the Ethiopian Airlines pilots. Then, "about a minute before the end of the flight, they turned them back on. Both of those things are unfortunate, obviously".

"There are so many pieces to any accident. I've never looked at an accident where there weren't three or four or five links in the chain, any one of which, if it hadn't gone wrong, the plane would have survived."

His comments came under sharp questioning from law-makers on Capitol Hill about how his agency certified the safety of the 737 Max.

Representative Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington state and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said: "Mr Elwell, the FAA has a credibility problem. The FAA needs to fix its credibility problem."

Questions focused on an FAA certification system that gives Boeing and other manufacturers far-reaching powers to oversee themselves. Lawmakers also asked Mr Elwell how the FAA and Boeing plan to assure travellers and aviation authorities around the world that the 737 Max is safe to resume flying.

"I want to emphasise at the outset that the FAA welcomes scrutiny that helps make us better. That is how our global leadership will endure," he told the committee.

Republicans on the committee came to the defence of FAA leadership and also raised questions about the pilots' role in the two crashes.

Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana said: "No matter what other countries say, I have not seen anything that questions my confidence in the FAA's safety judgment to date."

Family members of those killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash attended the Transportation Committee hearing. They, international regulators, and US law-makers, among others, have pushed for answers on how the FAA certified the safety of the plane, including the MCAS. In both crashes, investigators say, the automated system repeatedly pushed the planes' noses downward, thwarting pilots who were struggling to regain control, contributing to the crashes.

Boeing has been working on a software fix for the system, which will make it use information from two external sensors rather than one. It will also essentially reduce the strength of the system so it cannot overpower pilots.

But Representative Sam Graves, a Republican from Missouri and the ranking Republican on the full Transportation Committee, said information from preliminary investigative reports shows there were pilot-related issues with the Indonesian and Ethiopian crashes.

In the case of Indonesia's Lion Air flight, the pilots who flew the plane the day before the crash turned the autopilot off when the plane began to buck into the nose-down position, but "it does not appear that they fully reported the problems" and the plane was "serviced and cleared for flight".

The Missouri representative also noted that a preliminary report on the Ethiopian Airlines crash said the pilots followed proper procedures. "But there are several facts that absolutely contradict that conclusion. The aircraft accelerated throughout the entire flight. The pilots never pulled the throttles back after setting them for full thrust at takeoff."

He added: "That fundamental error appears to have had a domino effect on events that followed after that. The facts in the preliminary reports reveal pilot error as a factor in these tragically fatal accidents. To focus on a single possible cause fails to see the forest for the trees." He added that he thinks US-trained pilots would have avoided disaster and he remains concerned about the quality of pilot training internationally.

Transportation Committee chairman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, pointed to a lack of documentation about the MCAS in Boeing manuals for pilots, problems with an alert system connected to the system, and its reliance on data from a single sensor, which ended up providing bad data.

These and other issues have "raised questions about the FAA and its certification process. And we've got to get to the bottom of this".

Boeing acknowledged earlier this month, following a report in the Wall Street Journal, that a cockpit indicator on Max jets, known as an "angle of attack" disagree alert, didn't work on most planes because of a software problem. The alert is supposed to go off if a pair of key sensors have inconsistent readings. But the disagree alert on the Max planes didn't work unless airlines paid for a separate, optional indicator, the company said.

The issue is relevant because an angle of attack sensor on each of the crashed planes provided faulty data to the MCAS, and an alert could have provided pilots additional information showing the nature of the crisis they were facing.

Pressed by Minnesota Democrat representative Angie Craig on whether Boeing had an obligation to tell the FAA about the software problem, Mr Elwell said Boeing engineers followed their procedures by writing a "problem report" without sending it to the FAA because the alert was considered "advisory" and not a "critical safety display".

He said: "I'm not happy with the 13-month gap between finding that anomaly and us finding out about it. ...We are looking into that, and we will make sure software anomalies are reported more quickly."

NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said that it would be a mistake to dismiss the problems uncovered by the crashes as revolving mainly around international training standards.

"If an aircraft manufacturer is going to sell airplanes all across the globe, then it's important that pilots who are operating those airplanes in those parts of the globe know how to operate them.

"Just to say that the US standards are very good - this might be a problem with other parts of the globe - I don't think that's part of the answer. And I hate to use this term, but the airplane has to be trained to the lowest common denominator." WP