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US airlines still don't have flight simulators for Boeing 737 Max 8 pilot training

The EU and many other countries had grounded the aircraft Tuesday after the second crash in six months.

by Patricia Guerra and David Gilbert
Mar 12 2019, 7:27pm

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines union representatives say their pilots have not been provided with a flight simulator for Boeing’s new 737 Max 8 airplanes, which have now crashed twice in less than six months. Capt. Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the American Airlines pilots union, called the approval of pilots flying the plane without first training on simulators “unfortunate.”

Tajer said pilots for American Airlines, which has 24 of Boeing’s new planes in operation, are given a 56-minute video as training to fly the new aircraft.

While the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has not mandated simulator training in order to fly a 737 Max 8, Tajer said when things go wrong, pilots need to be able to react quickly — which is much more difficult without the muscle memory they get from simulator training.

“When the computer system does something you don't expect, it’s a problem,” said Tajer.

On Sunday morning, a 737 Max 8 flown by Ethiopian Airlines crashed soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa’s Bole International airport, killing all 157 people on board. In October, the same type of plane, being flown by Indonesian carrier Lion Air, also crashed after takeoff, killing 189 people.

On Tuesday, EU authorities banned all 737 Max 8 flights from operating in their airspace. Numerous regulators in North America, Africa, and Asia, including China, have also grounded the planes.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority has given airlines a green light to continue flying the plane, the FAA said Monday. American and Southwest are the only major U.S. airlines that fly the Boeing 737 Max 8, which has been in service for less than two years.

Read more: Everything we know about the Lion Air flight that crashed into the Java Sea.

On Tuesday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called for the FAA to ground the planes.

Southwest Airlines did not respond to a question about how its pilots were trained, but Michael Trevino, the communications director of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told VICE News: “Southwest Airlines does not yet have a Max simulator on property.” Southwest has 34 Boeing Max 8s in its fleet.

“When the computer system does something you don't expect, it’s a problem.”

An American Airlines spokesperson said: “All 737-800 pilots received training to fly the MAX 8.” They did not respond to a request for clarification on what that training entails.

Tajer said he had been told American Airlines will receive a 737 Max 8 simulator later this year.

Trevino said that, generally speaking, when a new model of plane is introduced pilots are required by the FAA to undergo training on a flight simulator. He said this didn't apply to the 737 Max 8 because the plane is a variant of an existing model.

The FAA did not respond directly to a question on training requirements for pilots operating new planes. A spokesperson provided a statement which said their safety system includes “extensive information sharing and robust pilot training.”

Boeing did not respond to a request for comment on how many pilots had been trained in simulators before flying the new 737 Max. A spokesperson for Norwegian Airlines, which has now grounded its fleet of 18 planes, told VICE News that all its pilots had received flight simulation training for the 737 Max 8.

The exact causes of the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes are not yet known.

A preliminary report into October’s crash, however, indicates that the likely cause of the crash was a faulty sensor that reported the airplane was stalling. This, in turn, triggered an automated system installed on the 737 Max 8 aircraft that tries to point the aircraft’s nose downward in order to gain sufficient speed to fly safely.

That system was installed because the new 737 Max has engines that are much larger than the original 737. The system, known as “maneuvering characteristics augmentation system” (MCAS) was designed to counteract the larger engines’ tendency to tip the plane’s nose upward.

In November, after the Lion Air crash, the Wall Street Journal reported that Boeing has acknowledged that in unusual circumstances this system can lead to the plane taking a steep dive — and didn’t warn pilots about the risk.

“The company had decided against disclosing more details to cockpit crews due to concerns about inundating average pilots with too much information — and significantly more technical data — than they needed or could digest,” a Boeing official told the Wall Street Journal.

Capt. Mike Michaelis, safety committee chairman of the American Airlines pilot union, said: “It’s pretty asinine for them to put a system on an airplane and not tell the pilots who are operating the airplane, especially when it deals with flight controls.”

Boeing announced late Monday that it will push out a software update for the 737 Max by next month “to make an already safe aircraft even safer.” The update will include a change to the MCAS system as well as what controls are displayed to the pilot.

Cover: Ground crew chat near a Boeing 737 MAX 8 plane operated by Shanghai Airlines parked on tarmac at Hongqiao airport in Shanghai, China, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. U.S. aviation experts on Tuesday joined the investigation into the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jetliner that killed 157 people, as a growing number of airlines grounded the new Boeing plane involved in the crash. (AP Photo)