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Boeing withheld information on 737 model, according to safety experts and others

A worker assists his colleague as a turbine engine of Lion Air flight JT610 is lifted at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta on Nov. 4.   © Reuters

Boeing Co. withheld information about potential hazards associated with a new flight-control feature suspected of playing a role in last month's fatal Lion Air jet crash, according to safety experts involved in the investigation, as well as midlevel FAA officials and airline pilots.

The automated stall-prevention system on Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 models -- intended to help cockpit crews avoid mistakenly raising a plane's nose dangerously high -- under unusual conditions can push it down unexpectedly and so strongly that flight crews can't pull it back up. Such a scenario, Boeing told airlines in a world-wide safety bulletin roughly a week after the accident, can result in a steep dive or crash -- even if pilots are manually flying the jetliner and don't expect flight-control computers to kick in.

That warning came as a surprise to many pilots who fly the latest models for U.S carriers. Safety experts involved in and tracking the investigation said that at U.S. carriers, neither airline managers nor pilots had been told such a system had been added to the latest 737 variant -- and therefore aviators typically weren't prepared to cope with the possible risks.

"It's pretty asinine for them to put a system on an airplane and not tell the pilots who are operating the airplane, especially when it deals with flight controls," said Capt. Mike Michaelis, chairman of the safety committee for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents about 15,000 American Airlines pilots. "Why weren't they trained on it?"

One Federal Aviation Administration manager familiar with the details said the new flight-control systems weren't highlighted in any training materials or during lengthy discussions between carriers and regulators about phasing in the latest 737 derivatives.

Boeing declined to immediately answer specific questions Monday. "We are taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this incident, working closely with the investigating team and all regulatory authorities involved," the company said in a statement. "We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX."

On Monday, an FAA statement reiterated that the agency had mandated flight manual changes to emphasize proper pilot responses to the new flight-control systems. "The FAA will take further action if findings from the accident investigation warrant," the statement noted, but declined to comment further.

Boeing marketed the MAX 8 partly by telling customers it wouldn't need pilots to undergo additional simulator training beyond that already required for older versions, according to industry and government officials. One high-ranking Boeing official said the company had decided against disclosing more details to cockpit crews due to concerns about inundating average pilots with too much information -- and significantly more technical data -- than they needed or could digest.

Minutes after takeoff from Jakarta in good weather, Lion Air Flight 610 experienced problems with airspeed indicators and a related system that feeds data to computers about the angle of the nose. The crash killed all 189 people on board.

Investigators haven't described the precise sequence of events that caused the twin-engine jet to plummet into the Java Sea at a steep angle and high speed. But Indonesian authorities already have called for stepped-up pilot training and suggested they are delving into design issues. In the U.S. at least, substantial training changes will have to wait until new flight simulators are delivered to carriers.

The focus of the probe is shifting away from its early emphasis on individual system malfunctions and suspected pilot mistakes, according to people tracking developments.

Instead, these people said, U.S. and Indonesian crash investigators increasingly are delving into the way the MAX 8's automated flight-control systems interact with each other, and how rigorously the FAA and Boeing analyzed potential hazards in the event some of them malfunction and feed incorrect or unreliable data to the plane's computers. Swiftly turning off the automated feature is the solution in such cases.

Earlier 737 versions have different stall-protection systems, that don't automatically drive down the nose even when other functions of the plane's autopilot are turned off. Yet operation of those older systems was highlighted in training over the years, and pilots had to memorize steps to counteract potentially dangerous unintended consequences. MAX 8 training materials don't include a requirement to memorize the steps to turn off the stall-protection system.

Stepped-up scrutiny of the latest 737 MAX features applies to more than 200 of the models that have been delivered to customers around the world, including Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines. Boeing's 737 factory near Seattle currently churns out 52 planes a month.

"We're pissed that Boeing didn't tell the companies and the pilots didn't get notice obviously, as well," said Capt. Jon Weaks, president of Southwest Airlines Co.'s pilot union. "But what we need now is...to make sure there is nothing else Boeing has not told the companies or the pilots."

Like Mr. Weaks, some FAA managers and industry officials aren't satisfied with what they contend is Boeing's belated candor.

Boeing is working on a software fix, according to industry and government officials, that would likely mitigate risks. On Saturday, the company went further than before in spelling out dangers pilots can face if they misinterpret or respond too slowly to counter automated commands.

In a message sent to all 737 operators, and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago plane maker explained in painstaking detail the engineering principles and operational parameters behind the latest automation.

That message was more detailed than the bulletin Boeing voluntarily issued earlier, alerting pilots about the potential hazard -- and touching off debate over the stall-prevention system's design. Within hours, the FAA followed up with its emergency directive mandating changes in flight manuals.

Such interim efforts "are very appropriate in the near term to increase pilot awareness," said John Cox, a former 737 pilot and ex-crash investigator for North America's largest pilots union who now consults on safety for carriers and business aviation.

Boeing's latest communications with airlines prompted American's union to alert its members. "This is the first description you, as 737 pilots, have seen," the union pointedly told pilots in a memo, referring to the 737 MAX stall-prevention system. Noting the system wasn't mentioned in American Airlines' or Boeing manuals, the union memo added: "It will be soon."

The ultimate way to counteract dangerous automated nose-down commands is basically the same for old and new systems, though checklists and procedures for the 737 MAX 8 entail more steps and take more time. Investigators and safety experts are convinced that as the emergency worsened, the Lion Air crew had barely seconds in which they could have diagnosed the problem and taken action to save the aircraft.

Shortly before the plane crashed, according to local Indonesian media reports, one of the pilots told air-traffic controllers about difficulties controlling the plane.

(Dow Jones)

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