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NTSB chair addresses aircraft safety at 737 Max hearing

A top US government investigator says aircraft must be designed to be safe in the hands of pilots from different regions of the world and with varying degrees of training, a notion challenging a narrative swirling since two Boeing 737 Max crashes.

“If an aircraft manufacturer is going to sell aircraft all across the globe, it’s important that pilots… in all parts of the globe need to know how to operate them,” US National Transportation Safety Board chair Robert Sumwalt tells lawmakers on 15 May.

“The airplane needs to be trained to the lowest common denominator,” Sumwalt adds.

Sumwalt, a former 737 pilot, made his comments during a congressional transportation committee hearing about the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification of the Boeing 737 Max. The NTSB does not regulate industries but rather investigates transportation accidents and recommends regulatory changes to agencies like the FAA.

Sumwalt sat beside FAA acting administrator Dan Elwell, at which lawmaker fired most of their questions.

Lawmakers asked Elwell why his agency approved a flight control system that can cause the 737 Max to enter a steep dive immediately after takeoff.

Elwell, also a pilot, called attention to pilot training. He says US pilots often receive more training in hand-flying – so-called stick-and-rudder skills – than do some overseas pilots, whose training often focuses more on aircraft systems.

Elwell noted that pilots of the two recently crashed 737 Max 8 did not follow all stipulated procedures to address erroneous activation of the aircraft’s manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS). As initially designed, that system can push the aircraft’s nose down based on erroneous data from a single angle-of-attack sensor.

Boeing has likewise insisted steadfastly that pilots can safely address unwanted MCAS activation by following the runaway stabiliser checklist, also called “runaway stab” checklist.

“What concerns me about the data from the flight data recorder is the apparent lack of recognition of runaway stab trim,” Elwell says of the pilots in the cockpit of the Lion Air 737 Max 8 that crashed in October 2018.

Those pilots did not turn off the stabiliser trim, as the checklist calls, during the entirety of the doomed flight, he adds.

Elwell also notes that pilots of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 that crashed in March did not adhere to guidelines related to airspeed.

The NTSB’s Sumwalt stresses he believes aircraft should be designed to be safe when flown by pilots with the level of training expected for the airline that buys the aircraft.

“To say, “the US standards are good [but] this might be a problem in other parts of the globe – that’s not the answer,” Sumwalt says.

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