NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
ALERT: KERA News 90.1 is performing essential tower maintenance which may disrupt our over-the-air signal between July 12-14. Click here for the KERA News stream, or listen on our app or smart speakers with no disruption. Thanks for your patience!

Pilots Voiced Concerns To Federal Database About Boeing 737 Max 8 Jets


Last fall, well before Sunday's Ethiopian Airlines crash, pilots here in the U.S. raised concerns about the Boeing 737 MAX 8. Five pilots who had encountered problems with the aircraft's autopilot system filed complaints with a federal database kept by NASA. They did so soon after the first MAX 8 crash in Indonesia last October. The Dallas Morning News was the first to report on the complaints.


Cary Aspinwall is the lead reporter on the story. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

CARY ASPINWALL: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Tell us a little more about this database where you found the complaints because I understand these are voluntary reports.

ASPINWALL: Yeah. This is a voluntary self-disclosure system administered by the FAA. But the database is kept by NASA, and the FAA says that that's because NASA is an independent third party. So the pilots, the air traffic controllers, the people working for the airlines - they can report incidents that concern them regarding safety or best practices anonymously, without fear of repercussion or losing their job or being disciplined. So in theory, FAA says this encourages safety. The flipside of that is we don't have a lot of details in these reports.

CORNISH: And the complaints you found were filed in the month after the Lion Air crash of a MAX 8 plane in Indonesia. Give us a sense of what these complaints were like, a sample of one or two.

ASPINWALL: Several complaints talk about a system in these planes that is designed for safety so that if the plane is going up too sharp of an angle and it starts to lose speed, in theory, this system takes over and corrects to bring the nose down and help it regain speed. But the pilots seemed kind of taken aback by the system taking over. They weren't sure what it was doing. And I think that shocked the pilots. These were probably very experienced pilots with many, many years of flying, one would imagine. We don't know what airlines or flights these were. But you know, they felt concerned enough to log complaints in this federal database.

You know, I think one of the pilots voiced his concerns that even after the FAA issued an update - an airworthiness directive designed to help compensate for what the pilots didn't know - he didn't think it was enough. And he was basically saying this flight manual is criminally insufficient, and he thought it was really alarming that pilots had been allowed to fly these planes without proper training.

CORNISH: And the pilot also wrote this. He said, the fact that this airplane requires such jury-rigging to fly is a red flag. Do you have any sense of whether the five complaints you were able to turn up from this database were the only ones about this plane?

ASPINWALL: You know, we don't really know. They have 60 days to disclose things in the voluntary disclosure reporting system, and I'm not quite sure how long it takes for them to show up in this NASA database. So there could be more where they didn't even specify that it was a MAX 8 and we just missed those. But there could be other incidents that weren't reported here.

We talked to the president of the Transport Workers Union yesterday, and he said that he's been hearing this from pilots that he knows - their concerns about the plane. And from his perspective, for the maintenance guys that work on these planes, they think it's really unfair if there was a design flaw or an issue with the plane when first put into flight - to put that on the pilots for them to have to figure out how to handle the plane in flight. They think that's massively unfair to the pilots to put that on them.

CORNISH: We don't normally read pilot reports like these, you know, where people talk about what went wrong or things that didn't go as expected in a flight. I know as a traveler (laughter) and passenger, it was jarring to read. Do you have any sense of whether these stand out as particularly bad incidents?

ASPINWALL: You know, that's kind of why we were looking at the database. It really surprised me when I found out about it last year based on some other records I'd requested. I had never heard of it, honestly. You know, when you look at these incidents with the MAX 8, there's things like the plane suddenly going nose down, nose down, and the GPS system voicing to the pilot, don't sink; don't sink, which is an automated response. But it's kind of - as a passenger, it's a little scary to read. I actually flew in a MAX 8 back from California to Texas this weekend, and it was fine.

But one of the things in our research that we found is that Boeing kind of sold the plane as it's a 737; it doesn't require, like, a whole new simulator and a whole new training; it's just a new version of the 737. And I think the pilots were trying to say, like, is it really? Is it totally different? Shouldn't we have had a simulator for this or some other advanced training - because they didn't expect to be surprised once they were taking off in the plane.

CORNISH: Cary Aspinwall is an investigative reporter with The Dallas Morning News. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

ASPINWALL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.