Dhaka: Pilots and test crew members from the US Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing are to begin a three-day certification test campaign for the 737 MAX today, according to reports.
The test is a pivotal moment in Boeing’s worst-ever corporate crisis, further damaged by the novel coronavirus pandemic that has crushed air travel and jet demand.
The grounding of the fast-selling 737 MAX in March 2019 after two crashes in five months killed 346 people in Ethiopia and Indonesia triggered lawsuits, investigations by Congress and the Department of Justice and cut off a key source of Boeing’s cash.
The FAA confirmed to US lawmakers on June 28 that an agency board had completed a review of Boeing’s safety system assessment for the 737 MAX “clearing the way for flight certification testing to begin. Flights with FAA test pilots could begin as early as tomorrow, evaluating Boeing’s proposed changes to the automated flight control system on the 737 MAX”.
After a preflight briefing over several hours, the crew will board a 737 MAX 7 outfitted with test equipment at Boeing Field near Seattle, one of the people said.
The crew will run methodically scripted mid-air scenarios such as steep-banking turns, progressing to more extreme maneuvers on a route primarily over Washington state.
The plan over at least three days could include touch-and-go landings at the eastern Washington airport in Moses Lake, and a path over the Pacific Ocean coastline, adjusting the flight plan and timing as needed for weather and other factors, one of the people said.
Pilots will also intentionally trigger the reprogrammed stall-prevention software known as MCAS faulted in both crashes, and aerodynamic stall conditions, the people said.
The FAA email said the testing will last several days and “will include a wide array of flight maneuvers and emergency procedures to enable the agency to assess whether the changes meet FAA certification standards”.
It added, “FAA has not made a decision on return to service” and has a number of additional steps before it can clear the plane to do so.
After the flights, FAA officials in Washington and the Seattle-area will analyse reams of digital and paperwork flight test data to assess the jet’s airworthiness.
Likely weeks later, after the data is analysed and training protocols are firmed up, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a former F-15 fighter pilot who has promised the 737 MAX will not be approved until he has personally signed off on it, will board the same plane to make his assessments, two of the people said.
If all goes well, the FAA would then need to approve new pilot training procedures, among other reviews, and would not likely approve the plane’s ungrounding until September, the people said.
Meaning the jet is on a path to resume US service before year-end, though the process has been plagued by delays for more than a year.
Regulators in Europe and Canada, while working closely with the FAA, will also conduct their own assessments and have pinpointed concerns that go beyond the FAA. They may require additional changes after the 737 MAX is cleared to return to service.