Boeing's debut 737 MAX-7. (Boeing)
Boeing's 737 MAX is back in the air — at least for flight testing. The company has completed its software update on the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) system and test flown the new version 207 times.
Over those flights, the updated 737 MAX has accrued more than 360 hours of flight time, Boeing said. In addition to actual flights, the updated plane was also put through hundreds of hours of flight simulator testing out the new MCAS software.
“With safety as our clear priority, we have completed all of the engineering test flights for the software update and are preparing for the final certification flight,” said Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg in a company statement. “We’re making clear and steady progress and are confident that the 737 MAX with updated MCAS software will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly. The accidents have only intensified our commitment to our values, including safety, quality and integrity, because we know lives depend on what we do.”
The 737 MAX was grounded worldwide in March after the second of two deadly crashes which combined to kill 346 people. Initial investigation reports indicate that the cause of the crashes was at least in part MCAS, a pitch-adjustment system that pilots had trouble disabling, which was erroneously triggering thanks to a faulty angle-of-attack sensor. The aftermath of the high-profile accidents has brought the planemaker and the FAA's certification processes both under scrutiny from the flying public and other country's regulators.
In response, Boeing has pledged to fix the plane and get it back in the air, and the FAA — as well as its presumptive new Administrator — has pledged to do its due diligence to ensure that it is safe before it carries passengers again. The 737 MAX getting to that point is crucial to Boeing's business, as the plane — the fastest-selling in the company's history — is slated to be a global workhorse for decades to come and already makes up a significant portion of fleets for operators such as Southwest and American Airlines. But, another significant setback could be a challenge for the MAX, and international regulators have pledged to do their own checks before lifting their bans rather trusting the FAA.
The MCAS software update is a critical step in Boeing's rehabilitation plan. The manufacturer promised the update in March and the FAA approved it in April, leaving time for industry comment and the testing that Boeing has been doing. In addition to the software, the planemaker has created new training and education materials, which it said the FAA and other regulators are currently reviewing.
The architects of the test flights, Boeing revealed, are Jennifer Henderson and Jim Webb. Henderson, a former engineer and U.S. Air Force pilot, is the chief pilot for 737s at Boeing, who has also served Boeing as the flight test director for the 787 Dreamliner and the chief test pilot for the 737 MAX-7 during her 14 years with the company. Webb, Boeing's chief pilot for commercial airplanes, is a former U.S. Navy test pilot who as recently as last year held Henderson's role as chief 737 pilot.
“Of course the expectation is we know how to fly the airplanes and are experts in the systems. We also have to have an awareness of how the manufacturing system works, how the testing goes from beginning to end, the business aspects and the direct link between our customers and our products," said Webb.
Both Henderson and Webb were required to sign off on the 737 MAX's new system before it was allowed to take to the air.