Boeing went to lengths to downplay the computerized flight-control system that turned out to be deadly in the 737 Max jetliner, a new batch of internal communications show.
Repeatedly, Boeing tried to dissuade airlines from requiring training for pilots in advanced flight simulators before they flew the new jet, a move that would have vastly added to the manufacturer's costs.
Some of the message exchanges between Boeing employees allude to deceiving regulators or others. One employee talked about "jedi mind tricks" – a "Star Wars" reference – that would hopefully work on regulators.
In the end, the plane launched without a requirement for simulator training, with disastrous effects. Two crashes – one off Indonesia and the other outside Addis Ababa in Ethiopia – killed 346 people and grounded the 737 Max.
The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which received and reviewed the documents as part of a probe into the crashes that killed 346, called the emails "incredibly damning."
"They paint a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go to in order to evade scrutiny from regulators, flight crews and the flying public, even as its own employees were sounding alarms internally," said committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., in a statement.
Many of the emails and other communications focus on the development of the flight system blamed for the two crashes, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. The computer program worked in the background, allowing the Max to fly like generations of previous 737s. It counteracted a tendency for the plane to pull upward under some conditions because it had heavier engines that were repositioned on the wings.
As early as 2013, employees at a Boeing meeting were urged to treat MCAS as merely an add-on to an existing stability feature, not something entirely new. "If we emphasize MCAS is a new function there may be greater certification and training impact," according to an internal email.The goal was to avoid regulatory hurdles that would take time and add cost. The Max would be labeled just another 737 version, not a whole new model. Moreover, pilots would be able to learn the differences during sessions on personal computers or notebooks, not during costly flight simulator sessions.
The existence of MCAS was downplayed to such a degree that it wasn't mentioned in flight manuals. But in October 2018, Lion Air pilots had to fight to keep the nose of their 737 Max up even as MCAS kept pushing it down, a battle they lost when the plane plunged into the Java Sea, killing all 189 aboard.
Five months later, an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed after takeoff. Even though MCAS had become known to pilots after the Lion Air crash, similar circumstances led to the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines jet.
A 2013 memo outlined how Boeing could downplay MCAS, making it known internally but hidden from the outside. Inside the company, it could be called MCAS. Outside, the memo said, it was to be referred to only as an addition to the existing speed-trim system. Keeping the name under wraps would make sure Boeing was "not driving additional work due to training impacts and maintenance manual expansions," the email states.
In a redacted 2017 email to an unnamed airline, Boeing's chief technical pilot wrote of being concerned that requiring a Max simulator for pilots "will be creating a difficult and unnecessary training burden for your airline, as well as potentially establish a precedent in your region for other Max customers." Attached was a presentation meant to emphasize how similar the Max was to the previous 737 version, the NG.
In another email, an airline was urged to avoid simulators by having its pilots spend a minimum number of hours in the NG before learning the differences between the two models or requiring their first flight on the Max be with a pilot who has flown the plane before.
"A simulator training requirement would be quite burdensome to your operation," the Boeing email warned.
In some of the emails, Boeing employees talk openly about the pretense in their efforts.
"I haven't been forgiven by god for the covering up I did last night," one worker apparently involved in Max testing wrote last year.
Boeing, in a response to the release of the documents, said it hasn't found any instances of cover-ups involving the simulator testing. Still, the company said, the "language and the sentiments expressed in these communications are totally unacceptable," but it stands by its belief that its recommended levels of training in the development of the Max were appropriate.
Yet earlier this week, Boeing changed course, recommending simulator training when the Max is reintroduced.