Haunted by the two deadly crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets and his agency’s role in approving the plane, veteran Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety engineer Joe Jacobsen is stepping forward publicly to give the victims’ families “a firsthand account of what the truth is.”
In a detailed letter sent last month to a family that lost their daughter in the second Max crash in Ethiopia two years ago this week, and in interviews with The Seattle Times, Jacobsen gave the first personal account by an insider of the federal safety agency’s response to the Max crashes.
Jacobsen should have been among the FAA specialists who reviewed the Max’s critical new flight control software during its original certification, which was largely controlled by Boeing. He’s confident that he and other FAA engineers would have flagged its serious design flaws. He got the chance to do so only after the first crash in Indonesia, in late 2018.
He believes additional system upgrades are needed beyond Boeing’s fix for the Max that was blessed by the FAA and other regulators.
And Jacobsen argues that the plane would be safer if Boeing simply removed altogether the new software — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — that went wrong in the two crashes that killed 346 people.
Jacobsen also calls for the replacement of some of the people at “the highest levels of FAA management,” whom he blames for creating a culture too concerned with fulfilling the demands of industry.
In his letter and interview, Jacobsen also described in more depth than previously reported how an autothrottle system issue may have contributed to the crash in Ethiopia in March 2019.
Boeing and the FAA said in separate statements they believe the Max is fixed and safe, and that regulators worldwide have validated this conclusion.
Jacobsen is a 59-year-old top safety specialist at the FAA, who’d previously spent more than a decade at Boeing.
In the months after the second crash, Jacobsen laid out his concerns to his FAA managers and to the Department of Transportation inspector general’s office. He also communicated them to the House and Senate committees that subsequently issued scathing investigative reports and wrote the FAA reform legislation passed in December.