The chief of the Federal Aviation Administration plans to pilot a Boeing 737 Max, a major symbolic step before the agency clears the plane to fly passengers again.
Administrator Steve Dickson will take the controls of the plane to test Boeing’s fixes on September 30, the FAA said in a notification to several Congressional committees. Dickson, a former pilot and executive at Delta Air Lines, flew several plane types, including an older version of the 737, before joining the FAA.
Dickson has previously said that the agency would not lift its order grounding the plane until he flew the plane personally.
“I am not going to sign off on this aircraft until I fly it myself and am satisfied that I would put my own family on it without a second thought,” he said in November 2019.
The test flight will take place at Boeing’s facilities in Seattle, Washington. Dickson will first undergo new training which Boeing and the FAA have proposed for Max pilots.
The 737 Max has been grounded worldwide since March, 2019, after the second of two fatal crashes that killed a combined 346 people.
A new automated flight control system on the Max, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), was quickly found to be a primary culprit behind the crashes.
MCAS was designed to compensate for the 737 Max having larger engines than previous 737 generations. The larger engines could cause the plane’s nose to tip upward, potentially leading to a stall — MCAS could automatically point the nose down to neutralize the problem.
However, the system could be activated by a faulty reading from a single angle-of-attack sensor, without any redundancies or backups. In both crashes, the sensors are thought to have failed, sending erroneous data to the flight computer and, without a redundant check in place, triggering the automated system.
Although the grounding was initially expected to last a few weeks, Boeing and the FAA found additional safety hazards, eventually requiring Boeing to redesign the jet’s entire flight computer rather than just the MCAS software.
Boeing previously said it expected the jet to return to service in the second half of this year. Although airlines have eagerly awaited the jet’s return, the collapse of travel demand due to the coronavirus pandemic has dulled the need for the added capacity.
While a scathing report from House Democrats on the Transportation committee condemned Boeing and FAA missteps that led to the crashes in the first place, the plane has undergone virtually unprecedented scrutiny since it was grounded, and is nearing the final steps before it can be cleared to fly again.
Based on the remaining steps and Dickson’s planned test flight, the FAA could lift the grounding order as soon as early October.
Get the latest Boeing stock price here.