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Lion Air initially wanted simulator training for 737 MAX pilots, documents show

Jan. 10, 2020
4 min read
Lion Air initially wanted simulator training for 737 MAX pilots, documents show

Boeing employees tried to talk Lion Air out of more-stringent, simulator-based training for 737 MAX pilots, according to a trove of internal communications that are now part of a congressional investigation into the grounded jet. Ultimately, no airline or regulator decided to require new simulator training for 737 MAX pilots who were certified to fly previous versions of the jet.

On Oct. 29, 2018, a Lion Air 737 MAX crashed into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff, killing all on board.

The documents were provided to Congress by Boeing in December and TPG reviewed a copy of key pages Friday morning.

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In an instant message between employees that was distributed in a June 2017 email, more than a year before the fatal Lion Air crash, one Boeing worker said, "Now frigging Lion Air might need a sim to fly the MAX, and maybe because of their own stupidity. I’m scrambling trying to figure out how to unscrew this now!"

In an email between Boeing's 737 chief technical pilot and an unidentified official in Jakarta, Indonesia, that same month, the urgency with which Boeing wanted to dissuade airlines and foreign regulators from requiring simulator training was on full display.

The official based in Jakarta whose email signature included the title "deputy training B 737" wrote that he planned to require one simulator training for MAX pilots.

Boeing’s 737 chief technical pilot responded that he wanted to discuss by phone what the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, Indonesia’s aviation regulator, was planning to require. “Please call me today on my cell phone, at your earliest convenience,” the Boeing pilot wrote. “Do not worry about what time it is here for me.”

Rendering of a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX. (PRNewsfoto/Boeing)

Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment about this exchange.

An automated flight control system designed to make the MAX feel more like previous versions of the 737 for pilots is suspected of contributing to the October 29 crash and another that involved an Ethiopian Airlines MAX five months later. Combined, the two disasters left 346 dead. After those two crashes, the global fleet of MAX planes was grounded by regulators.

Until this week, Boeing was adamant that MAX pilots should not need simulator training if they were already certified to fly on previous versions of the 737. Requiring such training would have made purchasing MAXes an expensive proposition for airlines, as scores of pilots would have needed to undergo costly, time-consuming retraining. Not requiring simulator training meant the MAX was treated more like an update to the previous version of the 737, rather than being introduced as an altogether new kind of plane. With only 34 MAX simulators available worldwide, requiring that training for pilots would have been costly and cumbersome for airlines.

On Tuesday, Boeing reversed that position and now recommends simulator training for all MAX pilots.

Details of the larger set of public documents were first reported by The New York Times on Thursday.

In a call with reporters on Friday, members of Congress said they remain concerned about possible defects with the existing MAX simulators. They plan to explore that topic with Boeing and Federal Aviation Administration officials as congressional investigations into the plane continue.

Other key revelations in the newly released documents involve flippant comments made by Boeing employees, including one who wrote, "I still haven't been forgiven by god for the covering up I did last year."

Boeing addressed the release of the broader set of communications in an email to employees on Thursday.

“These documents do not represent the best of Boeing,” the company said in the email, which was seen by TPG. “The tone and language of the messages are inappropriate, particularly when used in discussion of such important matters, and they do not reflect who we are as a company or the culture we’ve created.”

"It's important to note these communications involve only a few employees. It is also important to emphasize that, notwithstanding the inappropriate tone and content of some of these communications, we have examined these issues closely and remain confident in our regulatory processes relating to the MAX airplane and simulators," the email added.

Featured image by Getty Images