Boeing Co engineers identified a fault with a pilot warning system on its 737 MAX aircraft in 2017, a year before the deadly Lion Air crash, the company said on Sunday.
Boeing said that management was unaware of the issue until the crash in Indonesia, which killed 189 people, and the planes were not grounded until after another of the type operated by Ethiopian Airlines went down several months later, leaving another 157 people dead.
According to Boeing, a supposedly standard piece of equipment that tells pilot about disagreements between angle of attack (AOA) indicators — which measure the plane’s angle vis-a-vis oncoming air to warn of impending stalls — did not activate unless airlines purchased an additional optional indicator.
That left airlines that did not buy the optional indicator — including Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines — without the safety feature.
Faulty angle of attack indicator information might have played a role in both of the deadly crashes, causing the 737 MAX anti-stall system to unnecessarily activate and push the nose down toward the ground even as pilots fought to maintain altitude.
A Boeing review “determined that the absence of the AOA Disagree alert did not adversely impact airplane safety or operation,” concluding that “the existing functionality was acceptable until the alert and the indicator could be delinked in the next planned display system software update,” Boeing said in a statement.
“Senior company leadership was not involved in the review and first became aware of this issue in the aftermath of the Lion Air accident,” it said.
The company’s latest disclosure raises new questions about the 737 Max’s development and testing — and the company’s lack of transparency.
“The question I have is just like we asked them in Reno, ‘Is that all there is?’ That’s the biggest question,” Southwest Airlines Pilots Association head Jon Weaks said, referring to a meeting union leaders had with Boeing after the Lion Air crash.
“It’s obviously troubling that here is something else Boeing didn’t get to us,” he added.
Boeing’s entire 737 MAX fleet has been grounded since shortly after the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March, while investigators study the incidents and engineers work on solutions.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
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