US Pilot Unions Question The Boeing 737 MAX Documentation After Lion Air Crash

Two pilots unions have complained that they were ‘kept in the dark’ regarding a potential risk from a new safety feature on the 737 MAX 8. This comes following the devastating Lion Air crash that killed 189 people on October 29th. It seems Boeing failed to include information on this new system in any of its communications, leaving pilots unaware of the potential dangers of a malfunction.

Lion Air crash relatives flowers
Relatives of the victims have scattered flowers into the sea at the site of the crash

Two pilots’ unions in the US have said that the potential risks of a particular feature on the 737 MAX were not specified to them during training. Boeing have admitted that there was no reference to this safety feature in any of the documentation either. The unions say this left them in a compromising position of not knowing what to do in the event something went wrong.

Known as the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, this feature was added to compensate for particular nuances in the handling of the aircraft. Designed to protect against pilots losing control, the sensor for the system on the Lion Air flight malfunctioned, causing the aircraft to take a sharp dive.

Lion air 737 MAX
The Lion Air 737 MAX took a sudden nosedive 13 minutes into the flight

Since the accident, Boeing along with the Federal Aviation Administration have issued directives highlighting the specifics of the system in question.  The directive warned pilots that a computer on the Boeing 737 MAX could lead to the plane being forced to descend sharply for up to 10 seconds even in manual flight, leading to potential difficulties in controlling the plane.

‘Is that everything guys?’

President of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Jon Weaks, spoke for all their pilots when he said, “We don’t like that we weren’t notified. The companies and the pilots should have been informed. It makes us question, ‘Is that everything, guys?’ I would hope there are no more surprises out there.”

Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association at American Airlines and a 737 captain himself said that his union’s members were troubled by the revelations. He commented that, “This is not about silos and layers of bureaucracy, this is about knowing your airplane. We will always be eager and aggressive in gaining any knowledge of new aircraft.”

Southwest max 8
Southwest Airlines are the biggest operator of the 737 MAX and have the largest outstanding order too

Receiving complaints from  pilot unions representing American Airlines and Southwest is damaging for Boeing. Both are major operators of the 737 variant, and both have numerous 737 MAX aircraft on order.

Southwest is the largest operator of the 737 MAX right now, with 23 of the aircraft in service. They also have a further 227 on order. American Airlines have 100 on order and are running 15 as part of their fleet right now.

Other major customers for the 737 MAX include FlyDubai with 7 in operation out of an order of 251, Jet Airways with a fleet of 5 out of a total of 220 on order and Lion Air who had received 13 of their order of 201.

Debris from the Lion Air crash
The aircraft disintegrated on impact, making recovery work slow and difficult

The Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System

The system coming under scrutiny has been added to both the MAX 8 and MAX 9 models and is essentially a stall prevention measure. In the event that a pilot raises the nose too high, the system is designed to force the nose downwards in order to prevent a stall.

As per the recently issued directive, this could persist for up to 10 seconds, and is so forceful and unexpected that the pilot would have little chance of stopping it happening. According to Boeing, pilots could override the automatic response with a press of two buttons in the event of a system malfunction.

However, as training and documentation regarding this facility were excluded from the inductions to the new aircraft, the pilots of the Lion Air flight would not have stood a chance.

Investigators inspecting Lion Air wreckage
Investigators are working to establish the root cause of the crash

The ongoing investigation.

Investigators have commented that although the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System specifically was left out of the operating manual, there was a checklist which could be followed to turn off various systems in the event of an unanticipated nose down.

What the air crash investigators will be considering now is whether the pilots would have had time to implement this checklist when experiencing an unexpected nosedive at just 5,000 feet.

Lion air black box
The first black box was recovered from the sea bed last week

Although divers have so far recovered the first black box, which points to a failure of the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System as a potential cause of the crash, the second black box, known as the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) is still missing.

Recovery of the CVR could give vital insights into the actions the pilots took at the time of the crash, but as the location signal was lost around a week ago, it’s unlikely it will ever be found.