ADDIS ABABA: The captain of a doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight was unable to practice on a new simulator for the Boeing 737 MAX 8 before he died in a crash with 157 others, a pilot colleague said.
Yared Getachew, 29, was due for refresher training at the end of March, his colleague told Reuters, two months after Ethiopian Airlines had received the simulator.
The Mar 10 disaster, following another MAX 8 crash in Indonesia in October, has set off one of the biggest inquiries in aviation history, focused on whether pilots were sufficiently versed on a new automated system.
In both cases, the pilots lost control soon after take-off and fought a losing battle to stop their jets plunging down.
The MAX, which came into service two years ago, has a new automated system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). It is meant to prevent loss of lift, which can cause an aerodynamic stall sending the plane downwards in an uncontrolled way.
“Boeing did not send manuals on MCAS," the Ethiopian Airlines pilot told Reuters in a hotel lobby, declining to give his name as staff have been told not to speak in public.
"Actually we know more about the MCAS system from the media than from Boeing."
Under unprecedented scrutiny and with its MAX fleet grounded worldwide, the world’s largest plane maker has said airlines were given guidance on how to respond to the activation of MCAS software. It is also promising a swift update.
Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the pilot’s remarks. It has not said if 737 pilots should train on one of the new simulators to fly a 737 MAX, which has larger engines mounted slightly more forward than the previous model.
“I think that the differences between the 737 NG and the MAX were underplayed by Boeing," said John Cox, an aviation safety consultant, former US Airways pilot and former air safety chairman of the US Airline Pilots Association.
"Consequently the simulator manufacturers were not pushing it either. The operators didn’t realise the magnitude of the differences," he told Reuters in a communication about the Ethiopian pilot’s remarks.
AIRLINE CHIDES “IRRESPONSIBLE” VIEWS
Ethiopian Airlines said on Thursday its pilots had completed training recommended by Boeing and approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on differences between the previous 737 NG aircraft and the 737 MAX version.
They were also briefed on an emergency directive after the Indonesia crash, which was incorporated into manuals and procedures, it said in a tweet. The 737 MAX simulator was not designed to replicate the MCAS system problems, it added.
"We urge all concerned to refrain from making such uninformed, incorrect, irresponsible and misleading statements during the period of the accident investigation," it said.
The statement however, had no information on Yared's simulator training.
Yared’s brother said he traveled to Miami twice in the last two years to train on a simulator there, but he did not know which one. Miami has had a 737 MAX simulator since 2017.
The New York Times (NYT) also published a story in which it quoted sources saying Yared did not receive training in a 737 MAX 8 simulator. In response to Ethiopia Airlines' statement, the newspaper said it stood by its version of the story.
"We stand by our reporting, the facts of which have not been disputed by Ethiopian Airlines," the NYT tweeted.
Globally, most commercial airline pilots refresh training in simulators every six months. In the Ethiopian crash, it was not clear if Yared’s colleague - First Officer Ahmednur Mohammed, 25, who also died in the crash - had used the new simulator.
The 737 MAX 8 was introduced into commercial service in 2017, but pilots of older 737s were only required to have computer-based training to switch, according to Boeing, airlines, unions and regulators.
By December, two months after the Lion Air crash that killed 189 people off Jakarta, the main simulator producer CAE Inc of Canada said it had delivered just four MAX simulators to airlines.
At that time, CAE had orders from airlines globally for 30 MAX simulators, which cost between US$6 million and US$15 million each depending on customisation.
The world’s largest 737 operator, Southwest Airlines Co, will not have its first MAX simulator ready for use until October, its pilot union said on Wednesday.
"It is still very disturbing to us that Boeing did not disclose MCAS to the operators and pilots," the association told members in a memo seen by Reuters.