Pilots tell US Congress more training needed on 737 MAX

New York (AFP) –


US pilots, including Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, called Wednesday for enhanced training on the Boeing 737 MAX before the aircraft is returned to service following two deadly crashes.

Sullenberger, who famously landed a damaged plane on the Hudson River in New York in 2009, pushed back against the aviation giant's assurances that pilots will only need to review the 737 MAX modifications in a computer program.

"Pilots must develop the muscle memory to be able to quickly and effectively respond to a sudden emergency," Sullenberger told a House of Representatives subcommittee.

"Reading about it on an iPad is not even close to sufficient; pilots must experience it physically, firsthand."

Daniel Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association, said he was encouraged by changes Boeing made to a flight system seen as a factor in both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes that killed a total of 346 people.

But Carey, a captain with American Airlines, sharply criticized Boeing's development process of the MAX plane and said he was troubled that the training being discussed by the manufacturer would be insufficient.

"We remained concerned about whether the new training protocol, materials and method of instruction suggested by Boeing are adequate to ensure the pilots across the globe flying the MAX fleet can do so in absolute complete safety," Carey told the House panel.

What pilot training to require is among the prime questions facing Boeing as it works with the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulators in an effort to get the MAX recertified and back in the skies in 2019. The planes have been grounded globally since mid-March.

- Trap with 'deadly consequences'-

The hearing was the third in Congress since the global grounding and again focused on the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a flight handling system linked to both crashes.

In both of the MAX crashes, the MCAS pointed the plane sharply downward based on a faulty sensor reading, hindering the pilots' effort to control the aircraft after takeoff, according to preliminary crash investigations.

Sullenberger described Boeing's MCAS as poorly designed and said the company had compounded the problem by not communicating its existence to pilots.

The MCAS "was a trap that was set inadvertently during the aircraft design phase that would turn out to have deadly consequences," he told the panel.

Sullenberger said he experienced a 737 MAX flight simulator recreating the accident flights, recounting a chaotic array of sound and visual alerts.

"Even knowing what was going to happen, I could see how crews could have run out of time and altitude before they could have solved the problems," he said.

A requirement to have pilot simulator training would add cost and time to a resumption, in part because there are only four 737 MAX simulators out on the market now, although some panelists noted simulators on earlier Boeing 737 models could potentially be used.

Carey said one possibility was a computer-based training stage initially, with simulator training for all MAX pilots within 10 months.

- Summer return to service? -

Boeing executives have repeatedly apologized for the crashes, including this week at the Paris Air Show, where Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg declined to provide a target date for flights to resume.

Leading US carriers have pushed back their schedules for returning the planes to service as the timeframe for FAA approval has been extended.

However, US airlines are still targeting flights to resume in August or early September, which implies that FAA approval will need to be complete in the coming weeks.

Carey characterized the timeframe as realistic, saying "Boeing and the FAA are capable to get this back in the sky by the end of the summer."

Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the Democratic chair of the House Transportation Committee, said it has obtained "substantial" documents on the MAX and plans additional hearings with the FAA and Boeing, which has not yet been called to Congress about the plane.

That session will focus on the "meaningful, very pointed questions that need to be asked," DeFazio said.