In March, Joe Jacobsen, a former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety engineer, publicly said he feared the agency had too warm a relationship with Boeing. In interviews with the Seattle weatherJacobsen said the FAA had ceded too much control over the certification of the 737 Max and left veteran FAA engineers out of the process until the issues became too tragically apparent.
It wasn’t until after Max’s first crash in October 2018 that Jacobsen got involved in the Max Project; he quickly identified many problems with the aircraft (including with the much-discussed maneuvering characteristics increase system).
The FAA has been too close to the industry it is supposed to oversee for too long and wasted its knowledge and resources on high pressure certification efforts.
The fact that Jacobsen was left out of the process is an illustration of the depth of the rot at the FAA and how Boeing sought to profit from it. Jacobsen was right, right, and now needs to be taken seriously.
Jacobsen said he was shocked to learn that MCAS was designed around a single point angle of attack (AoA) sensor failure. It was almost too obvious to him; this system had a failure rate of less than 1%, but the FAA had been cradled with a sense of security that it would never fail. Testifying before Congress, Michael Teal, former chief engineer of the 737 Max program, said he was unaware that Boeing only used one AoA sensor. Critical functions need to be safeguarded and simply cannot be ignored.
It’s pretty easy to hide what you’ve been doing in a huge amount of paperwork. The FAA did not understand what Boeing had done and why. He trusted the aircraft manufacturer and, you could tell, was under pressure not to dig too deep. In this way, the Max’s flaws have been overlooked.
This is the reverse of the FAA’s intended role: its job is to question everything and never assume that the changes are minor and therefore do not require regulatory review.
Jacobsen would have been a familiar face to Boeing engineers. How he could have been excluded from the certification process, even in a simple supervisory role, is baffling. He had extensive knowledge and was known within the FAA and among manufacturers as a careful and meticulous examiner.
I spoke to several sources at the FAA while writing this article. Jacobsen has a reputation for being highly knowledgeable, especially when it comes to certification. The FAA certification office in Seattle, which has reportedly been dysfunctional for some time, was largely united thanks to Jacobsen and a small team of veterans. Despite its experience, the FAA did not use it as part of the Max’s original certification team, nor to keep the plane safe, nor to mentor young engineers who were supposed to overhaul the Max. They were the ones who most needed an experienced hand to guide them; those who are perhaps the most reluctant to challenge Boeing’s claims.
The FAA needs to put its best people in, at the very least, supervisory or mentoring positions. Their failure to do so epitomizes the long-standing brain drain catching up with the agency. When the bureaucrats above them don’t do a good job of managing, smart engineers become frustrated and leave – bringing their regulatory knowledge and influence to the industry.
The FAA must exercise due diligence in carrying out its functions. It is important to trust the companies they oversee, but the FAA has an obligation to verify that these companies are worth trusting. Boeing shouldn’t have been able to get the Max, as it did, through certification. The job of the FAA is to be an independent body that protects the public, not an organization that speeds up a billion dollar business venture.
On the manufacturing side, Boeing needs to be open and honest, both internally and with regulators. He must clearly identify the changes he has made, otherwise passengers and crew are in danger. Months after the FAA re-approved the Max, it was forced to bring some jets to a standstill again when a wiring issue that needed to be addressed immediately became apparent. How the most scrutinized jet ever managed to re-certify itself with another (albeit minor) flaw is baffling.
While it looks like the FAA is trying to do better, it remains to be seen if it actually improves. Jacobsen called for top-level replacements in the FAA, citing the culture that puts corporate interests above safety. Former associate administrator for aviation safety Ali Bahrami recently left the agency. A report from the US House of Representatives says Bahrami, who previously headed the FAA’s Transport Aircraft Directorate, “played no role” in the Max’s certification. However, as the FAA’s “safety officer”, he “appeared to be largely disengaged from the consequences and repercussions of the Lion Air crash,” the report said. The FAA took heat for not bringing the Max to a standstill after the first crash – a Lion Air jet in October 2018. A second Max, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, crashed in March 2019. The crashes took place killed a total of 346 people.
The next certification program is already upon us with the 777X. We need to identify where the FAA – and Boeing – deviated from the Max, assess what was done differently, and have an independent review of the whole process.
Certainly a scenario where details are hidden in tons of paperwork can never be repeated.
But with the FAA’s recent pullback on 777X certification, signs are showing that the agency has listened to criticism and may have changed its approach.
John Goglia is a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and is now an independent aviation safety consultant.