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Pilots in Safety Tests Are Too Skilled, Investigation Finds

Government calls for manufacturers, FAA to change assumptions
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 26, 2019 5:15 PM CDT
A Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane being built in April in Renton, Wash.   (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

(Newser) – The federal investigation of the Boeing 737 Max crashes has recommended changes to address one of its findings: Highly trained test pilots are likely to respond to problems better and faster during the safety certification process than airline pilots in the chaos of a real-life air emergency. The NTSB made seven recommendations Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reports. Five of them concern using more realistic assumptions about pilots' reactions when a plane's automated systems break down. In testing new planes for safety, the FAA and manufacturers have built in quick, best-case responses by the highly trained pilots instead of the more typical reactions that could be expected from pilots with less experience and training. The Max fleet is grounded worldwide after two crashes of the Boeing jetliner killed a total of 346 people this year.

In those crashes, software pushed the noses of the jets down. The pilots, amid a confusing series of warnings and alarms that sometimes conflicted, were not able to recover. The overwhelming flood of alarms has been cited before: The investigation of a 2009 Air France crash that killed 228 people found that the pilots faced a barrage of alarms and couldn't decide in time which ones to heed. An expert said at the time, per the New York Times, that pilots "can’t understand what the airplane is doing unless a computer interprets it for them" and called for industry-wide changes in training. In the Max report, the TSB’s top investigator called for building assumptions based on "what the average pilot would do" instead of the reactions of test pilots who "know the airplane like the back of their hand." Some of the recommendations apply to future planes, as well as the Max series. (Read more Boeing 737 stories.)

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