From its inception, Boeing’s 737 Max was designed to save airlines the expense of training pilots on flight simulators. Simulator training costs money, which few in the aviation industry are keen on spending. “No additional simulator training” became a key – and successful – selling point for the MAX, which is perhaps symptomatic of the entire aviation industry’s race to the bottom and intense commercial pressure in all parts of the aviation chain.
The latest batch of internal Boeing messages reveal the extent to which Boeing management was obsessed with achieving and defending a common type rating for the MAX and the NG. An obsession that would contribute to two deadly accidents. The messages show management was dictating to its employees that they should block any regulatory requirement for airlines to train pilots in a simulator on the differences between the 737 MAX and its predecessor the 737 NG. Worse, Boeing persuaded Lion Air to forgo simulator training for its 737 MAX pilots.
“I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required to transition from NG to MAX. Boeing will not allow that to happen. We’ll go face to face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement,” Boeing’s 737 Chief Technical Pilot Mark Forkner wrote in an internal Boeing e-mail in March 2017.
From a pilot’s point of view, training for any aircraft should cover three main pillars
From a pilot’s point of view, training for any aircraft should cover three main pillars in the relevant areas touched on by the MAX issues. First, every pilot, irrespective of aircraft type or airline, needs a thorough knowledge of the aircraft systems and how they function, rather than just how they are presented through the user interface. A system such as the MCAS is indeed something to be covered under this pillar.
The second pillar is the pilot’s experience of what ‘normal’ flying looks like, and what ‘abnormal’ looks like. This needs hands on, practical experience that in practice can only be gained in the simulator. It should include experience of the aircraft’s general handling characteristics both with any flight control or envelope augmentation systems functioning, and with them failed. Experience flying with and without Airbus’ ‘Normal Law’, or Boeing’s ‘Speed Trim System’ are obvious examples.
The third pillar is hands-on practical experience of the situation and environment a pilot will experience in any significant systems failure situation. This is especially so for situations where it is possible to perceive the need for more than one type of response, or where cockpit indications are ambiguous or conflicting. It is not wise to expect a pilot to select the correct response from several possible ones in a time pressured situation, if they haven’t experienced it (presumably in the simulator) before. A classic example is where an erroneous speed indication triggers a low speed or stall warning, which would ordinarily be a priority action to recover from – but in fact should potentially be ignored while the unreliable speed situation is troubleshot. This kind of situation has been a factor in many past accidents.
Looking at those 3 pillars, it is clear that simulator training plays a key role when training any pilot on any aircraft. It is obviously up to the regulators to eventually determine the final training requirements. But Boeing seems to have actively pushed the regulators into accepting pilots don’t need that ‘costly’ simulator training. Crew were eventually trained on the 737 NG and the MAX differences in a two-hour computer-based lesson. As it turns out, the two hours ‘no-mention-of-MCAS’ training, wasn’t enough to prevent two deadly accidents. Pilot training is not a sticking plaster that can make up for design flaws or system deficiencies. But without that full-fledged training of crew, Boeing eliminated that last line of defense which pilots in essence fulfil.
Boeing came around. But there is no reason to celebrate
Now, almost a year since the MAX grounding, Boeing has finally acknowledged the obvious: It recommended to the authorities that MAX pilots would go through simulator training. While the decision itself is worth applauding, the time it took Boeing to reach it is extremely worrying. It is a clear sign that the commercial considerations continued to play a leading role long after the accidents.
The NYTimes reports that the new decision stems from Boeing’s analysis of recent flight simulator tests that were part of the work necessary to return the MAX to service. The tests are said to have shown that many of the pilots did not use the correct procedures to handle emergencies, instead relying on improvising with their flying skills. Those results show that simply informing pilots of which procedures to use is not sufficient to prepare them to actually fly the plane.
Boeing came around. But there is no reason to celebrate. The commercial pressure that keeps eroding pilot training standards is still out there. The airlines and operators that wish to spend less on pilot training are still out there. And even Boeing, as soon as you think progress is being made with the simulator training, you then read about a 7-million-dollar reward for the MAX’s return to service to the new CEO. After all, maybe Boeing still hasn’t learned its lessons.