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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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On last 737 MAX model, pilots and flight engineers work to boost safety


PARIS — Each afternoon at the Paris Air Show this week, Boeing’s 737 MAX 10 climbs steeply, wheels and banks overhead, and wags its wings as it comes in low above the crowd.

A team of Boeing flight test engineers, technicians and test pilots is at Le Bourget to ensure the jet is ready to perform — and to show off an aircraft that brings a new level of safety to the MAX jet family.

After the two MAX tragedies, in 2018 in Indonesia and just over four months later in Ethiopia with a total of 346 people killed, Boeing redesigned the flight control system that led to the crashes to ensure the same scenario can never recur.

But the Canadian and European air safety regulators insisted two more significant upgrades to the systems be added later as an extra layer of safety. Those are now installed on the MAX 10.

And within three years of this jet being certified to carry passengers, the same enhancements must be retrofitted on all MAX models previously delivered.

“We can objectively say that these airplanes have been through more scrutiny than any other airplane in history,” said 737 Chief Pilot Justin Carlson, who flew the display flights at Le Bourget. “There’s layers upon layers of safety.”

‘Sanity check’

The 737 MAX 10, the largest jet in the MAX family, is still undergoing flight tests and won’t be certified to fly passengers until next year. Carlson, now eight years at Boeing, oversees that certification effort.

Tall and with the physical bearing of a former Marine fighter pilot, Carlson, 43, completed the elite Weapons and Tactics Instructor course, the Marines version of the Navy’s Top Gun program.

In the Marines, he flew Boeing F/A-18s and helped develop the test program for the latest U.S. fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35. And he’s more than simply a pilot.

Carlson graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with an engineering degree. And while getting his master’s in engineering from Johns Hopkins University, he also worked on the F-35 program and attended the Marine Corps Staff College, and his son was born.

“Yeah, it was a busy time,” he said. “We’ve learned in the ensuing years how to space things out a little better.”

Sitting inside the MAX 10 on Sunday, the eve of the air show, Carlson talked about the aircraft and its new safety features.

The first is an enhanced angle of attack.

Both MAX crashes were initiated when a single faulty sensor gave an angle of attack reading — the angle between the wings and the oncoming air — that was so high the flight computer assumed the jet was pitched up and about to stall. That’s why the flawed flight control system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, kept pushing the plane’s nose down.

Among other major changes to MCAS, Boeing redesigned the system to take readings from both angle of attack sensors on the plane instead of just one. But the foreign regulators insisted on adding a third check. That’s the enhanced angle of attack on the MAX 10.

A series of software monitors have been added to detect and alert the pilots to any anomalies or contradictions in the sensor readings. If detected, the potential faulty sensors are taken out of the system.

Carlson said it provides “a sanity check” on the two physical sensors.

Also new on the MAX 10 are two switches on the cockpit instrument panel that allow the pilot to manually stop a “stick shaker” stall alert — a heavy, loud vibration of the control column — if it is clear that it’s erroneous.

This is to avoid the distraction suffered by the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines pilots during the moments before they crashed.

Carlson said that because of the new enhanced angle of attack, these switches will probably never be needed. It’s just one more redundant layer of safety.

The switches have been carefully designed to fall within any 737 pilot’s habitual scan of the instrument panel.

“We want to support the habit patterns they already have,” Carlson said “We think the training impact is going to be very small.”

Referring to the Indonesian and Ethiopian crashes, Carlson added that, “I won’t say it’s a completely different airplane. But there’s so many new layers, there’s so many enhancements to the original design, that that kind of accident is simply impossible.”

Proving safety

Aboard the MAX 10 last Sunday, four of the flight test crew spoke eagerly of their work.

Flight test instrument engineer Jason Chippy, 29, said the job “never gets old. We do a lot of very cool things.”

He checks the functioning of all the instruments that are on board to collect and analyze data from the flight tests. The engineers sit with cross-chest seat belts on if the pilot takes the aircraft through extreme maneuvers such as stalls.

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All aboard are briefed before takeoff exactly what to expect on each flight.

“We fly toward the edges,” said instrument engineer Carlo Torrella, 30, “We’re replicating a freak environment that a crew might experience to show that the plane flies as expected.”

He said that can feel a little like a roller coaster, but as a self-described “Adrenalin junkie,” he likes it.

Brian Campbell, 47, is the flight test weight and balance lead, a complex job he formerly carried out in the Air Force as a loadmaster on the giant C-17 military transports. He has to work out the precise gross weight and center of gravity for each flight and how that will change as fuel is used up.

Before each flight test, Campbell consults with everyone involved, from the pilots to the line mechanics, and treasures the “close bond with the guys I work with.”

Flight test engineer Yves Neveu, 40, stood by the large black interconnected barrels that are filled with water to provide ballast in test airplanes. Born in Paris, Neveu moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 9.

One of his jobs is to manage the jet’s center of gravity.

As fuel is used up and shifts the weight in the wings, he transfers water between the barrels to keep the center of gravity within a very limited range.

Growing up feeling both French and American, Neveu said he’s “ecstatic” to be visiting Paris again with the MAX 10.

“It’s almost like coming home,” he said.

Neveu’s father was a pilot and his mother a flight attendant. He visited the Paris Air Show as a boy with his father and has “a core memory of watching MIGs doing Cobra maneuvers overhead.”

Today, the fighter jet displays at Le Bourget are perhaps even more awesome and heart stopping.

This week, the F-35 is performing an astonishing display of flying prowess that rattles the chests and bombs the ears of everyone below.

The MAX 10 struts its stuff too, though not so violently, with Carlson at the controls.

“I love flying the MAX. It’s always so impressive to me how maneuverable these airplanes are,” he said. “We bring it to an air show. We do a lot of things that the public doesn’t usually see a transport category airplane doing. And it does it so well.”

All the air show maneuvers he performs have been analyzed in advance by Boeing engineering.

“Everything that we’re doing in the flying display in front of the public has margin on top of what you’re seeing,” Carlson said.

“It’s safe,” he said.