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Exclusive: Ex-NASA Engineer Raises Serious Questions about Boeing 737 MAX 8 Certification

Last Updated September 23, 2020 12:34 PM
Matthew Proffitt
Last Updated September 23, 2020 12:34 PM

Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes have experienced their second fatal crash in five months. Former NASA Engineer Mike Slack commented on the trend in an interview with CCN.com and raised some sobering questions about the aircraft’s certification.

Former NASA Engineer: Boeing 737 MAX 8 Definitely Has Safety Issues

boeing 737 max 8
The Boeing 737 MAX 8 may have undergone a questionable certification process. | Source: STEPHEN BRASHEAR / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

Debris strewn about the ground, families grieving, and the second Boeing 737 MAX-8 to crash during ascent within five months. The death toll of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashing rests at 157 people. The death total for both MAX 8 crashes eclipses 340. Boeing shareholders have taken notice of the risk involved with keeping MAX 8’s in the air.

During our interview with Mike Slack, a former NASA engineer, and certified pilot, he stated the following about the accidents:

“We don’t have to know what caused the crash to know that we have a serious safety issue on our hands. Safety for aircraft is measured in crashes and deaths per 100,000 flight hours—These two crashes in five months represent a massive spike in the accident rate. Both [planes] were newly delivered in 2017 and both [planes] were newly certified with very limited operation hours. It sends a signal in flashing red letters: ‘This is a safety problem!’”

How Was The MAX 8 Certified For “Airworthiness?”

The FAA certifies planes piece-by-piece in a process called “type certification.” Because the certification process is so long and costly, there is “supplemental type certification,” which allows manufacturers to use a shortened process for parts that are “sufficiently similar” to their predecessors.

The MAX 8 was certified using many supplemental type certifications with only slight changes to engine positioning, modifications needed due to a larger engine. The problem with these changes was an increase in the upward lift—if an upward lift is left unchecked, it can stall the plane’s engines.

Enter the Maneuvering Control Assistance System (MCAS), a new software package for controlling upward lift in MAX 8 units. All software must meet type certifications as well, according to FAA guidelines.

One lesser known fact about FAA certification, according to Slack (emphasis added):

“In aircraft certification, much of the process by manufacturers is done by employees with delegated authority from the FAA.”

“While this is not widely known, it creates a conflict, but only in rare circumstances where it has been arguably abused. It isn’t always the FAA directly certifying the parts and machines. It can create an ethical conundrum for employees, but has done so only very rarely.”

“Until the problem is located, we will not know if this was the case — may be an employee signed off and shouldn’t have — maybe there is no connection there. Manufacturers SHARE responsibility with the FAA.

What Types of Issues Definitely Exist with MAX 8 Planes?

So what’s wrong with the Boeing 737 MAX 8? We already know that they like to fly up if left unattended and they have electronic reins to keep them in check—there is only one problem, they didn’t tell the pilots about the MCAS system in their operating manuals.

Pilots and staff who received training when transitioning from the 737NG to the 737 MAX 8  said “it consisted of about an hour of training with an iPad.”

When asked for comment about the importance of training pilots on cockpit systems, Slack stated the following, emphatically:

“The key is pilot training, making sure they don’t get surprised, ensuring they know the consequences of their actions, and ensuring they know what they need to have, by way of information to operate the machine safely.”

According to the New York Times, on its flight before the fatal takeoff, Lion Air 610 had registered incorrect speed and altitude  readings—information that should have grounded the airline. The Angle-of-Attack (AOA) sensor on the outside of the plane’s front seemed to be sending incorrect data to MCAS controls. Despite manually adjusting the plane’s trim, the pilots who may have been untrained on this system were unable to recover control.

What Happens for the Remaining MAX 8 units?

When asked about the potential ramifications of such a high crash and lethality frequency, Slack offered the following insight:

“One [potential] outcome is, regulators may say that they want to reevaluate the certification basis of the MAX 8. If they do, then Boeing could be put at a substantial competitive disadvantage. Airlines may ultimately lose revenue from grounding aircraft, orders for MAX 8’s may be canceled.”

Slack expressed curiosity about the potential for more layers of automation on the planes, underneath the MCAS. Being a certified pilot himself, he noted:

“Experienced pilots are great at disengaging automation. MCAS seemed to be somewhat difficult to disable [the automated flight assistance]. There may be some sort of background stability augmentation system which is causing additional issues.”

Despite the scary prospect of flying in a MAX 8, consumers can use free and cheap tools to determine whether their flight is a current-service MAX 8. Having said that, China and Indonesia, among other governments, have grounded all MAX 8 aircraft until further notice.