SEATTLE -- A few minutes before 10 a.m. Monday, a Boeing 737 Max took off from Boeing Field with a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pilot at the controls, the start of three days of re-certification test flights that mark a major step toward returning the aircraft to passenger service.
Though substantial additional work to gain FAA approval remains once these flights are completed, clearance for the Max to return to service in the U.S. -- assuming no further unexpected holdups -- could come around mid-September.
The plane flew east and landed one hour and 20 minutes later at Moses Lake. It is due to return to Boeing Field early in the afternoon.
The test flights over the next three days will evaluate Boeing's proposed changes to the automated flight control system on the Max.
This is the software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that activated erroneously on two flights that crashed, killing 346 people. Since the second accident in March 2019, the jet has been grounded worldwide.
Under intense scrutiny by both the FAA and foreign regulators, Boeing has over the past year made multiple changes to its plans for updating the airplane's systems. The start of these re-certification flights indicates that Boeing has finalized its changes and turned them in to the FAA.
In a letter to Congress this weekend, the FAA said that "over the past several weeks" it has been reviewing Boeing's system safety assessment and has now completed that review.
The test flights will enable the FAA to evaluate the finalized upgrade to MCAS as its pilots perform a wide array of flight maneuvers and emergency procedures to assess whether the changes meet FAA certification standards.
Aboard the jet are test pilots and engineers from the FAA and Boeing.
Once these series of flights are completed this week, the FAA will have to spend weeks going over the generated data to ensure the aircraft performs as expected.