Behold the difference between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The US House of Representatives Transportation & Infrastructure Committee‘s Aviation subcommittee held a hearing on May 15 focused on the 737 MAX certification process, crashes, grounding and other associated events. The FAA was represented by Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell while Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt represented the NTSB. Not surprisingly, Elwell took most of the heat during the hearing, but the way in which he responded, compared to the responses of Sumwalt, are telling in many ways.
The independent NTSB is focused on reviewing incidents, determining the root cause of those incidents, and making recommendations that will prevent those incidents from occurring again.
The agency is spectacularly conservative when it comes to assigning blame or even intimating that there are specific bits of blame to be cast before an investigation is complete. In the testimony today, prodded by Missouri’s Representative Sam Graves, Elwell showed little of that discretion.
Instead, “speaking as a pilot” he chose to call out the performance of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines pilots as contributing factors in their respective crashes.
What concerns me about the data from the FDR is the apparent lack of recognition of the runaway stab trim. Runaway stab trim is taught in the earliest stages and it is so important that you don’t pull out a checklist; it is memorized and you are tested on it all the time. You turn off those stab trim motors. In the Lion Air accident it is significant that even though the aircraft was pitching against the pilot’s commands – that’s a classic stab trim – the stab trim motors in 13 minutes were never turned off. In the Ethiopian Air flight they did turn them off although they didn’t adhere to the emergency AD we put out. Subsequently, about a minute before the end of the flight they turned them back on. – FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell
Representative Graves was happy to join in the blame game and was not nearly as subdued in his comments as Elwell. The xenophobia in this rant is astounding.
Grounding and ungrounding the MAX
Elwell offered some useful insight on the initial Airworthiness Directive and the specifics it included:
He also talked about the grounding and suggests that the USA was the first (then admits really second) country to react based on data rather than instinct. He does leave out the part where Aireon suggests it provided the same data to the FAA the day before it was provided to Canada. The discussion around “refining” the data remains very confusing as Aireon previously stated it only ever delivered the same set of raw data; nothing was further processed by its team.
That data-driven approach is critical to the success of the agency, according to Elwell.
What will it take to end the grounding? Elwell describes part of the process in this clip from near the end of his testimony.
Same question, VERY different answers
In two portions of the testimony the two witnesses were given essentially the same question to answer. The way in which they answered and the information they chose to share is telling. The NTSB comes across as singularly focused on aviation safety; the FAA, not so much.
One of those topics is flight deck cameras, something the NTSB has had on its list of recommendations for a while now but which never makes it past the FAA. Elwell’s explanation of that phenomenon is, well, phenomenal. And not in the good way.
For their closing remarks Sumwalt chose to address the pilot training issue that was mentioned so many times during the prior testimony. It was a coherent and thoughtful response to the prior hours of commentary.
We’ve heard questions about pilot training and the different standards around the world. If a manufacturer is going to sell airplanes around the globe then it is important that pilots operating those planes in those parts of the globe know how to operate them. To say that the US standards are very good and that this might be a problem in other parts of the globe is not the answer. The airplane has to be trained to the lowest common denominator.
Elwell’s statement was far more generic and without much significance.
Does any of it matter? Hard to tell at this point. But the difference is incredible to see.