Boeing probe reaches Kirkland local after deadly crashes

The criminal investigation into Boeing’s 737 MAX certification seeks information from a local expert.

The ongoing criminal investigation that followed two fatal crashes of Boeing’s 737 MAX jet series revealed its extent Monday (April 1) when a federal agent served a grand jury subpoena seeking information from a Kirkland man.

Peter Lemme, the Kirkland-based avionics and satellite-communications consultant and aviation flight-controls expert, has been cited as an expert source in numerous reports from publication including The Seattle Times and The New York Times. Lemme runs satcom.guru, an aviation blog where he details his analysis of aviation incidents including the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crashes from October and March respectively.

Despite his expertise and former position as a Boeing flight-controls engineer, Lemme has no direct knowledge of the 737 Max’s development and certification, but has extensively analyzed the plane’s systems following the crashes.

Lemme said he was shocked when the subpoena arrived, and the fact that a probe into the aircraft’s certification is seeking information from someone not involved with Boeing or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implies the investigation is wide-reaching.

“The special agent came to my door and I thought I was just getting a package,” Lemme said. “That changed dramatically when he flashed his badge in my face, and it suddenly dawned on me that this is a serious thing.”

Lemme added that he has already agreed to talk with the prosecutor and is more than willing to provide any information he’s collected.

“Quite frankly I have no reason not to,” he said. “I think by virtue of the fact that they issued a subpoena to me, somebody who left Boeing 22 years ago and never worked on the 737, would give pause to anybody who actually did work on the program to realize, ‘If they’re going that far out, they’re going to find me too.’”

MCAS

Currently, multiple agencies are probing Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA ) to investigate the certification of the 737 MAX and its Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which is implicated in the two crashes.

Essentially, MCAS will take action if it detects the jet could be about to stall. The problem seems to come from faulty readings that triggered the anti-stall system which then attempted to point the nose down, according to a preliminary report on the Lion Air crash from Indonesia’s transportation safety committee.

Investigators believe the Lion Air pilots struggled against MCAS, which caused the plane to dip down more than 20 times after receiving a single faulty reading. It is still unclear what caused the sensor to send bad data that triggered MCAS.

The preliminary report was published in November and is based on information recovered from the flight data recorder, or one of the plane’s two “black boxes”. Indonesia transportation officials have said they don’t expect to publish the final report for another few months.

Implications that MCAS may have also contributed to the Ethiopian Airlines crash last month caused the FAA to ground the jet series last month and sparked investigations into its development and certification.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced on March 25 a special committee will review the FAA’s certification process

“Safety is the number-one priority of the department, and this review by leading outside experts will help determine if improvements can be made to the FAA aircraft certification process,” said Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao in a press release.

On March 28, Boeing completed software modifications to MCAS in an attempt to lift the grounding and prevent MCAS from contributing to future incidents. The software fixes will take a day to deploy once approved, the company said at a news conference.

The FAA and individual regulators outside the United States then will determine when the jets can return to service. Afterward, airline operators will have to retrain flight crews in the MCAS updates.

Specifically, MCAS will now be activated by two senors instead of one. It will only activate once, instead of repeatedly, if the sensors are stuck reading the wrong value. And the system’s power will be reduced so pilots can manually correct any nose-down movement caused by MCAS.

Despite Boeing’s potential software fixes that would prevent future MCAS incidents, The Wall Street Journal reported citing unnamed sources briefed on the investigation’s preliminary findings, the Ethiopian flight crew followed Boeing’s emergency procedure implemented after the Lion Air Crash, but still failed to recover, implying the procedure was inadequate.

“Whats happening now with Ethiopian is that there may be more to this story in that in the recovery of an MCAS malfunction, the instructions are to turn the stab trim off and rely on the wheel to manually trim the stabilizers,” Lemme said. “It looks like on Ethiopian that actually may not have worked and so the pilots ended up having to do some other things and didn’t have instructions on how to deal with it.”

Prior to the report, Lemme outlined why the procedures could fail, despite Boeing’s and the FAA’s claims the MCAS malfunction is easy to detect and respond to. Lemme claims the Ethiopian pilots were unable to overcome the forces acting on the plane’s tail and manually pull the nose back up.

Lemme cited an old Boeing training manual from 1982 that an Australian pilot posted in an online forum. The manual details a maneuver that has potential to help overcome an MCAS malfunction called the “roller coaster” or “yo-yo” technique.

“We learned all about these maneuvers in the 1950-60s. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, Boeing manuals have since deleted what was then — and still is — vital handling information for flight crews,” the pilot wrote.

The counter-intuitive maneuver tells pilots to raise the nose before allowing it to dip back down, relaxing the controls and making it easier for the pilots to manually overcome an increasing force on their controls.

Investigations

Now, the multi-agency investigations are looking into concerns that the MCAS design included crucial flaws and Boeing may have limited development of MCAS to prevent new training that would have been required by new features in the 737 MAX, according to Seattle Times reports.

Lemme said the issue comes from the company’s desire to minimize differences between the 737 MAX and the previous 737 series.

“The troubling issue in the end is that somebody made the determination that MCAS was not necessary to discuss as a difference,” Lemme said. “It doesn’t show up in any of the manuals and of course in the case of Lion Air, not having that knowledge could have been a factor in how the pilots responded to it.”

The initial investigation was caused by information obtained after the Lion Air crash, and on March 19, in a new urgency caused by the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the Department of Transportation requested its Office of Inspector General conduct an audit of the 737 MAX’s certification.

“The frustration, I think, is that in fact MCAS was not a significant difference,” Lemme said, “and had they been more forthcoming and discussed it openly, it would have been accommodated without a significant impact in training. The information would have been disseminated, and maybe in the case of Lion Air we would have had a better outcome.”

The U.S. Congress and FBI are conducting a criminal investigation amid reports and concerns that the FAA sped-up the new flight system and allowed Boeing to partially self-certify the aircraft, as reported by the Seattle Times last month.

“[It’s] really unfortunate we may not be at the end of this road yet and have all the information that’s relevant,” Lemme said. “I hope they find nothing, because I’d like to believe in the integrity of the individuals and that what we have is a case of group think, where everybody felt like they were doing the right thing, and the best thing, but their direction was flawed.”

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