The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have launched a probe into the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX, which has been linked to two deadly airplane accidents over the past five months.
While most of the details of the investigation are unknown, a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C. issued at least one subpoena linked to the certification of the airplane by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). According to various news reports, the investigation is being carried out by the DOT Inspector General, with oversight from the Department of Justice.
On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the sea just 13 minutes into its flight, killing all 189 passengers and crew. Black box and flight data recorders indicate the pilots fought for 11 minutes to keep the plane in the air, likely due to a problem with the plane’s Angle of Attack (AOA) sensor, which kept telling an automated system, which the pilots could not shut off, to point the nose down.
On March 10, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed just minutes into its flight, killing all 157 passengers and crew. And investigators in both France and the FAA are saying that the characteristics of the short flight look disturbingly similar to that of the ill-fated Lion Air flight.
The two crashes have raised questions about what Boeing and the FAA knew about potential problems with the Boeing 737 Max, as other reports of averted accidents have surfaced in recent weeks, including a report that the same plane involved in the Lion Air crash experienced the exact same problem just one day before its doomed flight. That incident was averted because another pilot had hitched a ride aboard the plane, a common practice in the airline industry, and happened to know how to turn the automated system off. The following day, a different flight crew was not so lucky.
According to the report by Bloomberg News, the investigation into the plane’s certification actually began after the first accident, but has picked up urgency since the second crash, with the FBI now getting involved in potential criminal charges.
The Seattle Times issued a story on Sunday indicating that Boeing was allowed to take on more of the certification process for its own planes than usual and claims there were flaws in the safety analysis of the plane.
Shortly after that story, a formal audit of the certification process for the 737 MAX began within the DOT.
The issuance of a subpoena from a grand jury indicates that a criminal investigation is now under way, in addition to the certification probe. However, neither the FBI nor the DOT will discuss investigations currently in progress.
Boeing has nearly 400 of the planes in operation around the world, with orders for 5,000 more that have been halted during the investigation. All of the planes have been grounded worldwide.
Concerns Over Plane’s Safety
Following the Lion Air Boeing crash, the Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) released a preliminary safety report indicating the Boeing 737 MAX was not airworthy, after finding the plane’s Angle of Attack (AOA) sensors malfunctioned, wrongly telling the automated systems that the plane was in a stall because the nose was too high. As a result, pilots may continue to pitch the nose downward or the automatic system may forcibly pitch the nose down, causing the plane to nose-dive.
Following the Indonesian crash in October, the FAA issued an emergency air worthiness directive, which advised all pilots operating a Boeing Model 737 Max that the AOA sensors may produce erroneous readings and cause the plane to abruptly dive, increasing the risk of a crash.
On Wednesday, the FAA sent a Continued Airworthiness Notification To the International Community (PDF) indicating the planes will get a software update in April. However, it may be months before the investigation into the Ethiopia accident is complete, and the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX fleet is lifted.
“The FAA is aware that Boeing is developing a Service Bulletin that would specify the installation of new flight control computer operational program software,” the notification states. “Boeing has also developed flightcrew training related to this software. The FAA’s ongoing review of this software installation and training is an agency priority, as will be the roll-out of any software, training, or other measures to operators of the 737 MAX.”