The identical Boeing 737 MAX crashes that claimed 346 lives four years ago could have been avoided with just eight lines of software code.
Greg Travis, a software expert witness in a civil appellate case that will be heard on April 20, thinks that way. The case is asking the FAA for details about how Boeing and the government oversight body wrote and tested the MCAS control code for the Boeing.
Travis and the Flyers Rights Education Fund are still debating what the FAA should or should not have done about its MCAS oversight as the second of the MAX crashes approaches its fourth anniversary on March 10.
In response to a freedom of information request turned down by a lower court in 2021, the group is requesting complete disclosure. The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit will hear oral arguments in Flyers Rights' challenge against the FAA on April 20. USCA case number 21-5257)
In part to assist the (under congressional and tax payer oversight) in preventing future crashes as more complex technology is introduced into aircraft that are heavily reliant on automation and control algorithms, Travis and Flyers Rights wants transparency with FAA records on how the software was developed.
“The culture of safety regulation and enforcement at the FAA is one of almost complete secrecy. It states that almost everything is protected by the Freedom of Information Act from disclosure in order to protect trade secrets, confidential or internal communications, or individual privacy.
The FAA provided 9,000 pages of documents in response to Flyers Rights’ initial FOIA request, but “redacted practically everything of substance,” according to Hudson. “This includes information on the MCAS fix, remarks from the FAA to Boeing, the procedures followed during flight tests, the outcomes of those tests, and the names of the people involved.”
Despite manual attempts by the pilots to arrest the dips, MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) was suspected of being the cause of the two planes’ nosedives and subsequent crashes.
The purpose of MCAS was to automatically prevent the MAX from entering a stall, which experts warned could occur due to the MAX's design with larger engines mounted on a fuselage from an original 737.
The software should have been written to detect more than one of these sensors in order to request a reduction in altitude. Instead, it was originally written to detect the angle of attack in an unsafe climb from a single sensor.
“One sensor was used to make the choice, and angle of attack sensors are unreliable because they are susceptible to weather, being struck by birds, and other factors,” Travis added. “But, nobody ever pointed out that you are only using one sensor and that software should never have been released. Nobody can comprehend how things took place. Flyers Rights contends that this is one justification for granting the FOIA request.
Moreover, Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 million, including $1.7 billion to airlines for damages incurred as a result of the jets’ 20-month grounding. In order to make amends to the families of the victims, Boeing decided to pay $500 million.
However, In January, Boeing pleaded not guilty to a felony criminal charge of conspiracy to commit fraud in federal court in Texas. A federal judge last fall agreed relatives’ rights had been violated because they should have been consulted before the Department of Justice and Boeing reached their deferred prosecution agreement.
The concerns over MCAS in the 737 MAX came up this week during a hearing by the Senate Commerce committee when evidence was presented of two recent incidents with trim controls on new Boeing 737 MAX planes in flight.
At the hearing, Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, said experts at FAA need to ensure that during future aircraft certification reviews “another MCAS isn’t projected as part of the system and people don’t understand it.”
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