Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot, told a House subcommittee Wednesday that all Boeing 737 Max pilots should be required to undergo advanced simulator training.
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Aviation Subcommittee is investigating two 737 Max crashes that claimed 346 lives. The jetliner has since been grounded.
“Sully,” the retired US Airways pilot who became a national hero after landing his disabled plane in the Hudson River in 2009, said sessions in a full-motion simulator, not just a computer program, are the only way to fully understand the automated stabilization system that has been at the heart of the crashes.
“They need to develop a ‘muscle memory’ of their experiences so it will be immediately available to them in the future when they face such a crisis,” Sullenberger said. That means know how much pressure it will need to be applied, or whether it will take both pilots, to turn a wheel for manual control of the plane’s stabilizers, for example.
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In the Lion Air crash over the Java Sea in October and the Ethiopian Airlines crash shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa in March, a new computer system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) forcefully pushed down the nose of the jets as pilots wrestled to keep the planes airborne.
The system, meant to compensate for heavier jet engines mounted farther forward on the Max’s wings, keeps the plane’s nose up in order to make it feel to pilots more like past versions of the 737.
Boeing executives have yet to be called before either the House or Senate committees that have been looking into the 737 Max.
Daniel Carey, head of American Airline’s pilots’ union, lauded Boeing for having made superb aircraft over the years, but said his union, the Allied Pilots Association, has found the aircraft maker’s executives haven’t always been forthright when it came to talking to pilots about potential flaws that could affect safety.
When it came to dealing with a rudder control issue on the 737 in the 1990s, Boeing has a history “of being dishonest or less than forthright,” he said. Carey said the aircraft maker is yet to supply him with the MCAS data he has requested.
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Carey that pilots should be able to get simulator training as part of a nine-month cycle. He said American has 24 Max jets, with more on the way.
Former FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told the committee that pilots get complete training in 737 changes. He said pilots should never face a situation in which they are surprised by anything that happens in the cockpit.
But that’s what happened in at least one of the 737 Max crashes when the single failure of one of the plane’s angle-of-attack sensors, which help a pilot know whether the plane is pointed up or down, caused the MCAS system to violently point the planes lower, overwhelming the ability of the pilots to counteract it.
Sullenberger said in older aircraft, cockpit instruments operated independently so if one failed, it was easier to detect and recognize its importance. In modern jetliners, complex interconnected systems make it harder for pilots to deal with inflight emergencies. It can set off a cascade of warnings, some of them false, that thwart pilots’ ability to isolate and deal with the core problem.
“It’s difficult to sort it out because of the ‘startle factor,’ the workload, the task saturation to identify the root cause” of a failure in an emergency, Sullenberger said. “It can be contradictory, ambiguous confusing and ultimately overwhelming.”
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