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Dennis Muilenburg testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee on October 29, 2019

Engineer Says Company Erred in Sensor Testing: Boeing Update

Oct. 29, 2019
Boeing's senior leadership was called to testify in front of Congress about the 737 Max and aviation safety.

Boeing Co. President Dennis Muilenburg testifies before lawmakers in both houses of Congress this week for the first time since a pair of the planemaker’s 737 Max jets crashed, killing 346 people.

Tuesday he is scheduled to be questioned by the Senate Commerce Committee, followed by an appearance Wednesday before the House Transportation and Infrastructure panel.

Here are the latest developments:

Engineer Says Boeing Erred in Test of Key Sensor (11:03 a.m.)

Boeing’s chief engineer for commercial airlines acknowledged that the company erred by not specifically testing the potential for a key sensor to erroneously cause software on the 737 Max to drive down the plane’s nose.

In both fatal crashes, faulty data from one of two angle-of-attack sensors, which measure the pitch of the plane against the oncoming stream of air, caused the 737 Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, to drive down the jet’s nose, which pilots struggled to counteract before ultimately entering a fatal dive.

John Hamilton, vice president and chief engineer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told senators that the company “did test the MCAS uncommanded inputs to the stabilizer system, due to whatever causes was driving it, not specifically due to an AOA sensor.’’

Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the Senate Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, asked if he now thought that was wrong.

“In hindsight, senator, yes,’’ Hamilton replied.

-- Ryan Beene

CEO Says Wasn’t Briefed on ‘Jedi Mind-Trick’ Emails (10:46 a.m.)

Muilenburg said he wasn’t fully briefed on the details of damning emails and instant messages from a company pilot Mark Forkner complaining about a system later linked to two crashes until a “couple weeks ago.”

In sometimes flippant emails sent by the former senior Boeing pilot, Forkner referred to “Star Wars” to describe how he was attempting to persuade the FAA and other regulators about approving the Max.

The documents came to light during a probe conducted between the two crashes and were shared with U.S. Justice Department investigators, but not the Federal Aviation Administration.

In one message, Forkner wrote to a colleague in one that he was “just getting ready to hit breakfast then try and jedi mind trick these people into buying some airplanes!”

On Tuesday, Muilenburg said he relied on Boeing’s counsel to distribute the messages to the “appropriate authorities.”

He later apologized to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson for the omission.

He initially said he was aware of the communications before the Ethiopian crash, then clarified that he didn’t know about the contents of the messages.

-- Julie Johnsson, Alan Levin

CEO Begins Testimony By Addressing Family Members (10:24 a.m.)

Muilenburg opens his testimony by addressing the family members of crash victims assembled in the hearing room.

"We are sorry, truly and deeply sorry,” Muilenburg said. “As a husband and father, I am heartbroken by your losses.”

The crash of a Lion Air 737 Max last October and a second involving Ethiopian Airlines in March killed 346 people. Boeing has been sued by the victims’ families, in June said it was offering $100 million to support those families.

Roughly 20 family members of the Ethiopian Airlines crash victims were in the hearing room, sitting directly behind Muilenburg. They initially held photos of their loved ones.

Muilenburg will meet with about 20 family members Tuesday afternoon, according to an attorney for some of them.

-- Ryan Beene

Chairman Opens Hearing to Find Out What Went Wrong: 10:04 a.m.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker opened the hearing promising family members, some of whom are in the chamber, that they would get to the bottom of what went wrong and keep it from happening again.

“Both of these accidents were entirely avoidable,” Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, said as he gaveled the hearing to order. “We cannot fathom the pain experienced by the families of those 346 souls who were lost.”

Senators are expected to sharply question Muilenburg in a hearing that will likely last several hours. After Muilenburg, the panel will hear from Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Christopher Hart, a former NTSB chair who oversaw a multinational review that found several shortcomings in the FAA’s certification of 737 Max.

“These families deserve answers, accountability and action, and the public deserves no less,” Wicker said.

-- Ryan Beene

Muilenburg, Asked if He Will Resign, Says That’s Not His Focus

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, asked by reporters if he plans to resign, said that’s not his focus and reiterated that company is focused on safety.

Muilenburg, speaking before the hearing, said he’s committed to doing everything he can to ensure accidents like this never happen again.

“We’re responsible for our airplanes,” Muilenburg said.

In written testimony prepared for the hearing, Muilenburg said “We know we made mistakes and got some things wrong.”

-- Kasia Klimasinska

Key Events:

  • Testimony begins one year from the date when a Lion Air 737 Max plunged into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people on board. It will be the first time Muilenburg takes questions from lawmakers since the crash and a subsequent one by an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max in March that killed all 157 people on board that led to the worldwide grounding of the company’s top-selling and most profitable passenger jet.
  • Uncertainty over when the Max 7 family will fly again is rippling through the airline industry and Boeing’s finances. The U.S. manufacturer’s bill is $9.2 billion and rising, as it faces questions about the plane’s development and its own transparency. Boeing is aiming for a return to service later this year but some airlines have pulled Max flights through next year.
  • Lawmakers have indicated they want to ask whether Boeing had too much sway in certifying the 737 Max through a longstanding program at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that deputizes company employees to issue safety approvals on the agency’s behalf.
  • A report released Friday by Indonesian investigators highlighted the role of designees in approving the 737 Max design, including what investigators have flagged as a key vulnerability in the jet’s flight controls that malfunctioned during the fatal crashes.

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