Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot behind the “miracle on the Hudson” in 2009, has urged regulators to demand full simulator training for pilots on the Boeing 737 Max before it is allowed to return to the air following two fatal crashes.
Speaking at a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Mr Sullenberger, who crash-landed a passenger aircraft on the Hudson River in New York after it lost engine power, said a simulator would help pilots develop “muscle memory” to react to challenging situations.
Boeing has insisted such training, which would substantially delay the Max’s return to service, is not necessary, saying instead that a computer-based course covering the aircraft’s anti-stall system would be sufficient.
Mr Sullenberger told members of the House aviation subcommittee: “It’s critical that we address all the issues. It’s critical that pilots as soon as possible experience in a full-motion, level D simulator — and not just a part-test trainer — all the effects of the MCAS [anti-stall] system and also all the other things that they likely have not been trained on either at all or since initial qualification on the aeroplane.”
The entire global fleet of 400 Max aircraft has been grounded since March, following two accidents in which a total of 346 people died. Since then, Boeing has reported a hit to its revenues of $1bn, and is now working on a software update to the anti-stall system, which played a role in both crashes.
Dan Elwell, the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration, told Congress last month he expected the software fix to be ready within “the next week or so”, but the re-certification process has still not been completed, with pilot training emerging as the primary point of contention.
The FAA has not yet decided whether to insist on full simulator training. Airlines have warned that since Air Canada has the only airline-owned Max simulator in North America, mandatory simulator training could lead to severe delays.
According to an internal memo revealed by Bloomberg, the FAA expects Boeing to have to revise its draft approval request for the new software before making a formal submission.
An FAA spokesperson said: “We are working with Boeing as part of the process of making sure the final certification package is complete and will fulfil regulatory standards.”
So far, pilots’ unions have not said simulator training is necessary. Daniel Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, told Wednesday’s hearing he believed computer-based training and a video of a pilot in a simulator would be enough.
“We are in favour of the scenario that Captain Sullenberger described, in a video concept,” he said.
Some pilots are now becoming frustrated by the delays to recertifying the Max. In a statement on Wednesday, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association criticised both Boeing and the FAA, saying: “With the confusing information coming from the FAA, national and geopolitics, and Boeing’s continued mis-steps, there is no accurate estimate of when the MAX will return to service.”
The union added: “Boeing seems to receive more bad news with every passing week and still needs to learn how to rebuild trust, as well as the aeroplane.”
Boeing did not immediately respond to a request to comment. Speaking to the media on Sunday. Dennis Muilenberg, the company’s chief executive, said: “We are very confident in the design solution that we have come up with.”
But he added the company had work to do “to re-earn the public’s trust”.