Are Pilots Going to Feel Comfortable Flying 737s Again?

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Following the tragic crashes involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8s and the subsequent worldwide grounding of all 737 Max planes, the manufacturer, Boeing, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set out to determine the principal cause of the disasters.

The current findings are that the crashes related to safety features that were not installed in those 737 Max aircraft. Two components deemed responsible were optional accessories not included at the time of the purchase. The missing features pertained to the Angle of Attack (AOA) system that determines where the nose of the aircraft is in relation to the wings and the midpoint. If the AOA is not aligned correctly, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) would point the nose down automatically.

The result can be that the pilot may be unable to determine the plane’s exact orientation and respond inappropriately.

Boeing has reportedly included an updated AOA system included with each aircraft rather than selling the component separately. The MCAS system has reportedly also been updated. Now pilots will be able to override the MCAS response of pointing the nose down, when necessary.

Pilot-Testing the New Systems

Airline Pilot Central reports that Boeing is now recruiting pilots with varying experience levels to test the 737 Max in simulation. The company hopes the pilot testing program results will be 100% successful and can be included in the full data set used to apply to the FAA for re-certification.

Complete pilot certification is a critical component of Boeing’s quest to fly the 737 Max aircraft again. The pilots, copilots, and test pilots used in the testing program must be 100% confident that the changes are positive and that no one is endangered while flying the plane. If pilot confidence in the aircraft is even slightly compromised for a good reason, the FAA will likely not approve the ungrounding of the aircraft. Boeing would be sent back to the drawing board for more significant changes.

Possible Phased Approval

Most industry experts now believe the 737 Max will not be allowed to fly before 2020, even though Boeing continues to produce the aircraft at a reduced rate.

According to a September 2019 CNN report, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg speculated that other aviation authorities might not automatically follow the FAA’s approval for the 737 Max to fly again. When other authorities immediately grounded the aircraft following the two fatal crashes, the FAA hesitated and allowed the plane to continue operating in the United States for a few days. The delayed decision likely compromised the credibility of the FAA.

According to a Forbes article, the European Aviation Safety Agency and other regulatory bodies will need to make their own independent decisions about recertifying the aircraft. Since non-U.S. carriers operate most of the 737 Max aircraft currently pulled from service, recertification by all authoritative bodies may take far longer than Boeing anticipated initially.

Will Pilots Be Comfortable Flying the 737 Max Again?

Only when fellow professional pilots have put the 737 Max through extensive regular, abnormal, and emergency flight conditions successfully will pilots be comfortable flying the aircraft again. How long passengers may take to be comfortable traveling in a redesigned 737 Max is undeterminable.

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