The head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration launched a test flight of Boeing’s refurbished 737 MAX aircraft Wednesday, after the agency considered whether to allow the plane to return to flight after two fatal crashes.
FAA Administrator Stephen Dixon, a pilot who flew for the U.S. military and Delta Airlines, was expected to sit in the captain’s seat on the two-hour flight. A FAA spokesman said Boeing pilots would also be on board the plane as it departed from a former Boeing field in Seattle, Washington.
According to information from the tracking site FlightRador24.com, crews kept up with repeated changes in jet direction, speed and altitude as they made their way into eastern Washington State over the Cascade Range.
After the second crash, MAX has been grounded since March 2019. Two crashes have been blamed on an automated anti-stall system that pushes aircraft nozzles down based on incorrect readings from sensors. Boeing hopes to receive FAA approval later this year for changes to flight-control software and computers.
In Washington, the Home Transportation Committee passed legislation to change the FAA’s certification process for new aircraft, including the agency’s reliance on Boeing employees and other aircraft manufacturers to perform critical security analysis.
The bill does not eliminate FAA’s use of private sector employees to review their own company aircraft – legislators believe the FAA is too expensive to do this work and that aerospace companies have more technical expertise. Instead, the bill allows the FAA to select private-sector employees who do security analysis and allow civilian fines for companies that interfere with their work. Complained that Boeing whistleblowers were being pressured to approve systems on MAX.
Aircraft manufacturers need to tell the FAA, airlines and pilots about automated systems that can change the course of an aircraft. Top FAA executives and many pilots are unaware of the anti-stall system in MAX known as MCAS, after the first crash, in Indonesia in October 2018. Five months ago, another MAX crashed in Ethiopia. In all, 346 people died.
“Those crashes were the inevitable culmination of a series of spectacular mistakes by Boeing and the federal aviation administration,” said committee chairman Peter Defagio, of D-Oregon.
Garrett Graves, spokesman for the R-Louisiana FAA’s strongest defender, said the agency was referring to the “gold standard” in aviation regulation, but crashes showed the need for improvement.
The committee passed the bill by what appeared to be a unanimous voice vote. Spokesman Paul Mitchell, R-Michigan, walked out of the meeting after complaining that legislators only had one day to read the bill, saying it was an “absurd” rush to such a complex, technical matter.
The measure goes to the full assembly, based on recommendations from US and international regulators and security researchers. Its fate, however, is uncertain. A similar bill was not considered in the Senate committee on Sept. 16, and Congress is postponing legislators to go home and campaign for re-election.