Both the Department of Justice and Transportation Department’s inspector general are investigating the FAA’s approval of the Boeing 737 Max and, in particular, the aircraft’s anti-stall system known as MCAS.

The FAA is supposed to ensure that Boeing aircraft are safe. Investigators want to know:

  • Are the FAA and Boeing too cozy?
  • Is the FAA’s oversight is too lax?
  • Is it true that the FAA didn’t actually certify the Max’s anti-stall system as safe but instead allowed Boeing to certify the system itself? Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest?

Perhaps the real question is why these questions are being asked only now.

It was almost 10 years ago that the FAA abdicated its certification responsibilities and granted to Boeing the power to certify its own products. I questioned then whether that was in the best interests of safety.

Beginning August 31, the FAA will allow Boeing to self-certify its designs. The FAA will not even do the rubber stamping — Boeing employees will do that too. According to the Seattle Times, “the new system increases the authority of the in-house inspectors directly managed by Boeing, allowing them to review new designs, oversee testing to ensure the products meet all applicable standards, and sign off on certification.”

Then, in 2013, Boeing’s new 787s began to catch fire. The problem seemed to be Boeing’s new batteries. The NTSB investigated, and raised the same questions that I had a few years earlier. NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman hinted that maybe, just maybe, the FAA isn’t doing its job:

This is an issue when you have a regulator with limited resources. . .You can delegate some of the action, but you can’t delegate responsibility.”

No one seemed to listen. In fact, the FAA, for its part, began to allow manufacturers to certify even more of their own products. In fact, by 2017, the FAA outsourced 90% of all aircraft certification work to the manufacturers themselves.

The FAA is supposed to oversee aircraft manufacturers to ensure that the aircraft they produce are safe for the flying public. They can’t do that if they leave it to manufacturers to police themselves. Yet, that’s what they’ve done since 2009.

Is it any wonder that we’re where we are now?

The Boeing 737

The Boeing 737 was originally intended for short haul flights to short runways.  One of the 737’s unique design features was that the engines were mounted on the underside of the wing, instead of in front of the wings on struts and pylons.

Engine Under Wing

Mounting the engines hard up against the wing decreased drag, reduced weight, improved the aircraft’s center of gravity, made the cabin quieter, increased usable cabin space, and made the engines more accessible for maintenance.   In addition, the under-wing engines just plain looked good.

Introduced in 1967, the Boeing 737 was an immediate hit.  It eventually became the best-selling commercial aircraft in history.

The Type Rating 

Before flying a jet, a pilot must have a license – or “type rating” – for that particular type of aircraft.  That means a 747 pilot cannot fly a 737 without first obtaining a 737 type rating. Obtaining a type rating entails considerable training and FAA testing.  Further, the pilot must renew his type rating regularly.  That means more training and more testing.   An airline that operates multiple aircraft types must therefore develop and maintain multiple training programs.  Expensive.

Southwest Airlines decided it would save money by flying only one type of aircraft and one type only – the Boeing 737.  All Southwest pilots hold and maintain the same rating – the 737 type rating.

Boeing 737 Variants

737 Tail Strike

Over the years, Boeing has introduced a number of clean-sheet designs, such as the 787.  It has discontinued older designs, such as the 757.  But it has continued to develop and produce many variants of the 737.   Versions are now available that hold up to twice the number of passengers as the original.  The speed some versions of the 737 must fly when approaching the runway has increased dramatically, making it unsuitable for shorter runways at a small airports.  Because many variants are so long, they carry a risk of striking the tail onto the runway during takeoffs and landings.  Some versions of the 737 are not suitable for contaminated runways, as was the original.  But the 737 remains extremely popular.  One reason: all variants still qualify as 737s and thus can be flown on the same type rating.

Boeing 737 Max 8

737 Engine in Front of Wing

As the aircraft became bigger, it needed different engines.  The engines no longer fit under the wing.  Thus, the Max 8 carries the engines in front of the wing instead of underneath.  When the Max 8 pitches up too steeply, the engines can adversely affect that aircraft’s aerodynamics.  To fix that problem, software activates the aircraft’s automatic trim system, commanding the aircraft to pitch down.  If that safety system malfunctions and causes the aircraft to pitch down unnecessarily, the pilot can disable the system by switching off the automatic trim so that the trim can be controlled manually.

Lion Air Flight 610                   

Shortly after takeoff, the Lion Air 737 Max 8 pitched down unnecessarily in uncommanded fashion.  The pilots attempted to physically overpower the automatic trim system instead of disabling it.  The crash ensued.

The Controversy

Pilots are outraged that Boeing’s documentation does not explain to the pilot the operation of the automatic pitch down logic, called MCAS (for “maneuvering characteristics augmentation system”).  Boeing says that exactly how the system works is irrelevant – the emergency procedure for an uncommanded pitch down is the same regardless of whether it was caused by the MCAS system or something else – simply disable the automatic trim system.  Pilots respond that they are not mere checklist-followers.  They need to know exactly how their aircraft systems work so they can understand why an aircraft is behaving in an anomalous fashion.

It now appears that Boeing did not specifically discuss the MCAS system in the pilot operating documentation because the more new material contained in the aircraft documentation, the more likely the FAA would require a new type rating — or at least more training — to fly it.  Either of which would, of course, have defeated the whole purpose of modifying the 50 year-old 737 design yet again instead of designing the aircraft from a clean sheet of paper.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302

The Ethiopian crash is in many was similar to the Lion Air Crash.  Both aircraft were new 737 Max 8’s.  Both crashes happened on the first flight of the day.  Both happened shortly after takeoff, in good weather. Both aircraft had difficulty maintaining a stable climb before crashing.  Could the Ethiopian crash also have been the result of the MCAS system commanding a nose-down pitch?

Boeing fans would say ‘no’.  The real cause of the Lion Air crash, they say, was the pilots’ failure to disable the automatic trim system once the plane nosed over.  Given the publicity surrounding the Lion Air crash, the Ethiopian Airlines crew would have been spring-loaded to turn off the system if they were experiencing the same problem.  Therefore, the Ethiopian Airlines crash must have been caused by something else.



EgyptAir Flight 990 departed JFK for Cairo. After reaching cruise altitude near Nantucket, it suddenly pitched down and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. There was no apparent reason for the crash. The NTSB ultimately concluded that the cause of the crash was the co-pilot’s “intentional actions.” Specifically, the pilot suddenly pushed the yoke forward and held it there, killing all 217 aboard.

The Egyptian government disagreed with the NTSB’s conclusion, instead blaming the crash on a defect in the design of the 767’s elevator system. Boeing knew that if certain rivets in the elevator’s bellcranks fail, the elevator can jam, causing the aircraft to pitch down and become uncontrollable. Instead of requiring that the airlines replace the suspect rivets with more reliable fasteners, Boeing told the airlines to simply inspect the rivets more regularly. But Boeing knew even before the crash of Flight 990 that the inspection protocol was not effective in catching rivets that had failed. According to the Egyptians,

Equally, if not more disturbing, is the NTSB’s total disregard of the relevance of the unequivocal evidence of either sheared or deformed bellcrank rivets, not only on EgyptAir 990, but also on other Boeing 767 aircraft.

The FAA came to agree that simply inspecting the rivets more frequently was not the answer. So in March 2014 – 15 years after the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, the FAA warned airlines that “failures or jams in the [Boeing 767’s] elevator system” can result “in a significant pitch upset and possible loss of control” and ordered airlines to replace the rivets with fasteners that were more reliable,

Boeing 767 Elevator Bellcranks

So far, so good. But, somewhat surprisingly, the FAA gave the airlines until 2020 to make the repairs.

Atlas Air Flight 3591 was, of course, a Boeing 767, just like EgyptAir Flight 990. And like EgyptAir Flight 990, the Atlas Air flight suddenly pitched down and crashed for no apparent reason.

If it turns out the Atlas Air Flight 3591 crashed because of what everyone seems to agree is a defectively designed elevator control system, one would have to ask why Boeing and the FAA gave the airlines six years to fix the problem.

Monica Kelly’s lawyer writes to say that a entry contained false and defamatory matter about his client.  He encloses a 2016 report of the Review Board of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission recommending that, contrary to the Hearing Board’s conclusion that Kelly filed a frivolous pleading and recommending that she be suspended for 60 days, Kelly’s pleading in fact did not violate ethical rules and that she should not be suspended as a result.  Glad to provide her lawyer’s full input on the matter below.

Aerobatic hall of fame pilot Eddie Andreini was flying a routine at the Travis Air Force Base. He was attempting a stunt known as an inverted ribbon cut. Something went wrong. Eddie’s Stearman slid upside down along the runway, coming to a stop at show center. His Stearman caught fire. Eddie couldn’t get out. The crowd watched, prayed, and waited for fire trucks to arrive. Some bystanders wanted to rush to the plane to help, but the announcer warned everyone to stay back and “let the firefighters do their job.”

Continue Reading Air Force Agrees to Change ARFF Procedures; Pay $1.4 Million to Settle Andreini Death Lawsuit

ICON Aircraft hired away from Ford Motor Company a superstar PhD to lead its engineering department.  When Cagri Sever showed up at ICON’s facility in Vacaville, the first thing ICON did was send him off on a “demonstration” flight with the company’s chief pilot, Jon Karkow. Karkow flew to
Lake Berryessa, a virtual stone’s throw from the ICON factory.  Once there, Karkow couldn’t resist the urge to engage is some low level maneuvering over the water.  Minutes after takeoff, Karkow crashed onto the shore, leaving both of them dead.

Continue Reading Family Sues ICON for Fatal A5 Crash

The NTSB hasn’t yet issued its report on the fatal Skylife air ambulance crash in December 2015. But a Fresno judge has ruled that regardless of the cause, the family of one of the paramedics on board will not be allowed to sue either the operator of the helicopter (Rogers Helicopter) or the helicopter’s owner,   (American Airborne), regardless of whether they were negligent in the helicopter’s operation or maintenance.

As it turns out, both entities were partners with the paramedic’s employer, Skylife .  An employee cannot sue his employer for a work related injury or death.  Nor can he sue the employor’s partner.

Such claims are barred by the Workers’ Compensation laws.


 Aviation journalist Christine Negroni reports in Forbes that Monica Ribbeck Kelly, the lawyer who instituted “frivolous” legal proceedings after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, has herself disappeared.  Not only was the Illinois Ethics Committee after Kelly, but she was being sued by victims of an airline disaster in China for promising to file suit on behalf of victims but failing to do so before the statute of limitations expired, leaving the victim’s without any legal recourse.  It appears that Kelly has shuttered her law office and gone back to her native Peru. 

According to Negroni, maybe this is the last we see of Ribbeck: 

There are few successful days in court associated with Monica Ribbeck [Kelly]’s high-profile representation of air disaster victims.  So while her departure from the US may deprive dissatisfied clients . . . of any legal recourse, it could be the last we see of her shenanigans with the American legal system.