Boeing Co., whose new 737 Max 8 aircraft is being grounded by national regulators around the world, is conducting test flights of the plane in the Seattle area and on the West Coast.
According to records on flightaware.com, Boeing has flown a number of Max 8 planes in and out of its base in Seattle on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
Boeing began the flurry of Max 8 test flights after news emerged early Sunday from Ethiopia of the aircraft’s second deadly crash in five months. The first was in late October in Indonesia. Both crashes killed all people onboard and both occurred shortly after takeoff. Boeing has been steadily flying Max 8 test flights since the crash in Indonesia, according to data on FlightAware.
The most recent test flights are “surprising,” consultant John Pottinger of Pottinger Aviation Safety said. “It’s not normal to do a test flight this soon after an accident,” he said. “Boeing is taking a step they would not normally do.”
Peter Pedraza, a Boeing spokesman, said he didn’t have details on Tuesday about the Max 8 test flights of the past few days.
Boeing defended its airplane Tuesday, as numerous countries grounded the Max 8. “We have full confidence in the safety of the 737 Max,” the company said in a statement.
At 7 a.m. ET on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to inveigh against technology in modern aircraft. “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly,” he said, adding “old and simpler is far better.”
In a second tweet, Mr. Trump added: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot.”
Thereafter, Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg spoke with Mr. Trump by phone, a company spokesman confirmed. Mr. Muilenburg told the President the Max 8 was a safe aircraft.
In Boeing’s recent test flights, the company appears focused on the Max 8’s takeoff – a major question in both crashes. On Monday, a Boeing Max 8 departed Paine Field north of Seattle, where Boeing has a factory, at 3:42 p.m. PT and arrived nine minutes later at Boeing Field in Seattle, a public airport where Boeing has operations. About two hours later, the same plane departed Boeing Field and arrived back 43 minutes later.
On Tuesday morning, also from Boeing Field, a Max 8 departed at 10:03 a.m. PT and arrived back there at 11:54 a.m. PT. Also on Tuesday, Boeing flew three short flights of a Max 9, which has a longer fuselage than the Max 8.
Boeing has also been flying test flights of the 737-800, the direct predecessor to the Max 8. They have been similar to the Max 8 flights. One 737-800 departed Boeing Field on Monday at 2:49 p.m. PT and arrived at Paine Field less than an hour later.
Mr. Pottinger said Boeing is likely comparing how the two aircraft react to similar circumstances. Mr. Pottinger noted that the new Max 8 design is not much different from older 737s. However, with bigger engines that are positioned differently, Boeing has incorporated software into the new planes to deal with the changes of weight and balance, Mr. Pottinger said.
The software issue is a central question for the Max 8. Late Monday, the United States Federal Aviation Administration issued what it calls a continued airworthiness notification. The regulator said it plans to mandate design changes to Boeing’s flight-control systems no later than next month.
Boeing, in a release late Monday, said it has been working on the improved software “for the past several months and in the aftermath of Lion Air Flight 610,” the crash in Indonesia. The updates include changes to flight control, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.
Boeing said it has been working with the FAA on “development, planning and certification of the software enhancement, and it will be deployed across the 737 Max fleet in the coming weeks. The update also incorporates feedback received from our customers.”
The FAA certified the Max 8 two years ago. There are about 350 in service, of which 41 are flown by Canadian carriers. About 8,500 Max 8 flights took place in a recent week, before the groundings. Among the busiest routes for Max 8s are Air Canada’s Montreal-to-San Francisco, Montreal-to-Los Angeles and Vancouver-to-Calgary.
John Oystensen, an aviation consultant who works with operators of smaller planes and helicopters, said flight tests are standard practice in the aviation world.
“You do a lot of test flying for a lot of different things to check out operational equipment – to ensure it’s performing the way it should be,” Mr. Oystensen, of Coast Aviation Consulting, said.
Boeing on Monday flew a Max 8 down to the Southern California Logistics Airport from Boeing Field. A Max 8 – it is unclear whether it was the same plane – flew back later in the day.
This specialized airport in Victorville is about 140 kilometres northeast of Los Angeles and one of its main uses is aircraft maintenance and repair. It has large, state-of-the-art hangars. Boeing has operations there. General Electric also has an aviation flight test operation facility at the airport.
With a report from Adrian Morrow in Washington