The Federal Aviation Administration is handing off certification work to aircraft manufacturers like Boeing because of pressure on the agency to keep up with the rapidly growing drone industry.
Officials from the FAA, National Transportation Safety Board, and Department of Transportation will testify before Congress on Wednesday in hearings focused on how the FAA and Boeing have handled the aftermath of two fatal crashes involving the 737 MAX-8 in five months.
While there’s no direct evidence that the pressure may have hampered the FAA’s role in certifying the 737 MAX and the anti-stall system suspected of bringing down the jets, it is clearly one reason that the FAA ceded part of the work to Boeing in 2017 when the agency gave final certification to the MAX.
The agency’s budget request for that year said its Aviation Safety Office, in charge of certifying aircraft, would need “additional safety staffing to meet growing demands for UAS [unmanned aircraft system] operations, while continuing to expand delegation responsibilities to designees,” like Boeing.
FAA staff is under unprecedented pressure to meet the demands of a radical change in the way that airspace will be used in the next decade.
This pressure is coming at the agency in two urgent waves: First, to produce regulations that will permit short-range drone deliveries in urban areas and second – and far more revolutionary – to clear another layer of airspace for new fleets of electrically powered air taxis, a vision of future mobility being driven by Uber.
The FAA’s budget request for the 2019 fiscal year indicated a perfect storm of converging leaps in aviation technology: It said it had to accommodate “a spike in unmanned aircraft system (UAS) work, as well as an increase in the level of complexity that some of these projects will bring.
“While FAA’s staffing plan calls for adding AVS (Aviation Safety Office) personnel in future its fiscal 2019 strategy is to redirect existing resources…These factors are driving the need in the short-term to reprioritize some of the AVS existing resources for certification services and UAS integration.”
The agency’s 2019 budget actually cut funding for the Aviation Safety Office by 1.7 percent.
An FAA spokesperson told The Daily Beast that they could not respond in detail to specific questions about the impact of certification and oversight work on unmanned aircraft systems. This included revealing any measure of the increased workload imposed by the introduction of commercial drones – or how those resources have been allocated since 2016.
After the two crashes in which 346 people died the certification program of the 737 MAX-8 is under scrutiny by a special Department of Transportation committee. “This review by leading outside experts will determine if improvements can be made to the FAA certification process,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said.
The certification of the MAX-8 was not put under unusual time pressure, as some have suggested. The time from first flight to certification to clear it for delivery to airlines was 394 days. The average time taken to certify previous models of the 737 was 230 days – and changes to those versions, called Next Generation, involved far deeper modifications to the airplane than in the MAX series.
Test flights of the MAX-8 began early in 2016. The new pressure on the FAA’s safety testing resources was already present a year earlier, in February 2015, when then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx proposed a framework of regulations to make the use of commercial drones “routine.”
“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace,” he said, “and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation.” There was no proposal to increase safety testing staff to cope with this new workload.
Four airplanes were used in the flight testing. An early focus of the tests was how the handling of the new 737 would differ from previous versions as a result of the more powerful new engines.
These engines, produced jointly by General Electric and the French company Snecma, had already been certified after tests carried out in 13 countries, and would deliver a 14 percent higher efficiency than previous generation engines.
The new engines were so powerful that they had to be throttled back to allow a chase airplane to catch up. (A chase airplane always follows the first flight of a new airplane so that engineers aboard can make a close visual check of the test flight)
It turned out, however, that a critical change in the airplane’s handling did not show up in flight tests but in the wind tunnel. At a certain point when making a climbing turn engine power caused the nose to pitch upward, leading to an “aerodynamic stall” that causes a plane to enter an unrecoverable dive.
And it was this new and unnerving characteristic that led Boeing to put new software into the flight management computers that was intended to prevent the stall, Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Neither in the flight tests nor in the wind tunnel tests was it disclosed that if the MCAS were fed false data the stall prevention system would not recognize that the data was false and, instead, force the nose down and persist in doing do against the commands of pilots.
This is the sequence of events believed to have brought down Indonesia’s Lion Air jet in October and Ethiopian Airway’s jet in March.
Not only the DOT’s investigation but other investigations how being carried out by regulators in other countries will want to know why this failure scenario was not anticipated or discovered by either the FAA’s inspectors or Boeing – a point of all test flights is to deliberately push systems to the limits in order to uncover problems like this that are deeply buried.
Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001, said on NPR’s Morning Edition on Wednesday, “We need to know how these decisions were made and who made them. This was a self-certifying process by Boeing that needs to be held up to the light.”
Europe’s safety regulator, EASA, and Canada’s have both said that they will carry out their own reviews of Boeing’s fixes for the failed system before ending their grounding of the MAX-8.
Aviation Week reports that the FAA does not want to allow the 737 MAX-8 and MAX-9 fleet to return to the skies after its world-wide grounding without reaching a consensus with those other national regulators that it is safe to do so.
“The world thinks the FAA is in Boeing’s pocket and the FAA doesn’t want to be first to lift the grounding,” one unnamed source told Aviation Week.
This week Boeing resumed test flights of the MAX-8 in order to demonstrate that changes made to its software will eliminate the flaw in its control system.
These changes include several new layers of safety – the powerful horizontal stabilizer that was activated by flawed data from a sensor will be restricted in its movement and the duration of its actions will also be greatly curtailed so that pilots can if necessary recover manual control from the computers.
Last May, DOT approved a pilot program for drones designed to deliver packages to homes. Ten states and local governments were allowed to open their airspace for trials for new services that could, for example, include pizza delivery from oven to front door. It was notable at the time that one of the earliest proponents of home delivery by drone, Amazon, was not among the 10 companies chosen, from 149 who applied.
Amazon’s vice president for public policy, Brian Huseman, said in a statement at this time, “At Amazon Prime Air we’re focused on developing a safe operating model for drones in the airspace and we will continue our work to make this a reality.”
Nobody is yet near to making home deliveries by drone in the U.S. The pilot program is intended to test the reliability and safety of the drones, that are restricted to a maximum weight of 55 pounds. The FAA will have two tasks: to certify the safety of regular drones to operate in closely populated urban areas and to figure out a new air traffic control system to insure that they do not intrude on airspace near airports.
But this version of the future overlaps with another. For several years Uber has been hyping an airborne taxi service using a network of electrically powered vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOLs).
The problem is that these will add another layer to what will become three separate levels of airspace – one for low altitude robot drones, higher dedicated sky lanes for the eVTOL taxis and the remainder of airspace reserved for both private aviation and commercial flights.
There has never been an air traffic challenge as complex as this – Uber is talking of a spacing between air taxis of only 15 seconds.
The FAA has offered a fast lane to certifying the air taxis. Using a new airworthiness standard approved in 2017 for airplanes with up to 19 seats it will provide certification for eVTOL taxis if they have wings. (This is an important caveat because some of the proposed eVTOLS are wingless, using rotors that serve as helicopter blades for takeoffs and landings and then swivel to work as propellers for horizontal flight.)
Uber is pushing the envelope even further. For at least the first decade the taxis will have pilots. After that they intend the vehicles to be self-piloting using the same technology as autonomous cars.