Investigators in Ethiopia expect to issue a preliminary report this week on a plane crash that killed 157 people. But a final determination of the cause of the accident may take months.
Meanwhile, the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration is defending his agency’s certification of the Boeing 737 Max and its initial resistance to ground the planes until all other major aviation regulators around the world had done so.
The official, Daniel Elwell, also will tell a congressional panel Wednesday that Boeing submitted proposed changes in key flight-control software to its 737 Max jetliner in January. He says the FAA is still reviewing the aircraft manufacturer’s plans for the software update and more pilot training. He calls FAA’s review “an agency priority.”
Still, Elwell’s testimony to a Senate subcommittee, obtained by The Associated Press and first reported by the Seattle Times, could renew questions over the FAA’s response to safety concerns about the Max aircraft after a deadly Oct. 29 crash in Indonesia and another in Ethiopia on March 10, nearly seven weeks after Elwell says Boeing submitted its proposed changes.
FAA spokesman Gregory Martin said Tuesday that the Boeing submission in January was preliminary, not final. He said the FAA has not received Boeing’s completed software improvements.
Boeing is updating software designed to protect against aerodynamic stalls, in which planes can lose lift from the wings and fall from the sky if the nose points too high. A company official provided more details on work to update the flight-control software, which was not part of previous 737 models.
Software designers considered “a broad range” of pilot skills “to ensure that normal airmanship skills are sufficient to control the airplane,” said the official, who spoke anonymously because the changes have not been made public.
Boeing said the changes will include protection against faulty readings by sensors. Erroneous measurements are suspected of triggering flight problems on the Lion Air jet. Regulators say the Ethiopian Airlines Max jet followed a similar flight path, including erratic climbs and descents before crashing minutes after takeoff, and those similarities were an important part of their decision to ground the roughly 370 Max 8 planes around the world.
A preliminary report on the Ethiopian crash will be released this week, a spokesman for the country’s transport ministry, Mussie Yiheyis, told the AP on Tuesday. He said that a high-ranking government official will announce the preliminary findings.
On Monday, Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam said the pilots who flew the plane that crashed on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa, had trained on “all appropriate simulators,” rejecting reports that they had not been adequately prepared to handle the new aircraft.
The New York Times reported Monday that pilots from five airlines tested current and updated software on a Boeing flight simulator. During a test that recreated conditions on the Lion Air flight, the pilots had less than 40 seconds to override the software before the plane uncontrollably plunged toward Earth, the newspaper said, citing two unidentified people involved in the testing.
Pilots can flip one switch to reverse a move by the software to point the nose down, and they can disable the software by flipping two switches at their knees.
Pilots involved in the simulator testing followed those steps and kept the plane under control using the current anti-stall software, the newspaper reported. The Lion Air pilots, on the other hand, had received little training on the system, and it was only after the plane crashed that Boeing first notified pilots of the system’s existence.
Jason Goldberg, a pilot who has flown the Max 8 and is spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing American Airlines pilots, told the AP that the anti-stall system “has significant control over the aircraft – it can pitch the nose down very significantly.”
Goldberg said it was “inexcusable for Boeing to omit this information from the pilot manuals for training. It’s a serious breach of trust.”
American Airlines has taken its 24 737 Max 8 planes out of the schedule at least through April 24.
“We’re hopeful that Boeing will come up with a fix, but the process can’t be rushed,” Goldberg said.
A Southwest Airlines Max 8, one of 34 in the carrier’s fleet, had to make an emergency landing shortly after takeoff Tuesday in Orlando, Florida, cutting short a flight to a short-term aircraft storage lot in California. The plane was not carrying passengers.
The airline and the FAA said the plane had a problem with one of its engines, not the flight-control software.
Ethiopian Airlines, widely seen as Africa’s best-managed airline, had been using five Max 8 planes and awaiting delivery of 25 more. The airline has not decided whether to cancel that order.
Koenig reported from Dallas. Meseret reported from Addis Ababa. Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.