• Donald V. Watkins

Who Pushed the FAA to Expedite Certification of Faulty 737 MAX Aircraft?

A Special Investigative Report


By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on March 19, 2019


The U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) and Department of Justice (“DOT”) are investigating whether protocol lapses occurred in the Federal Aviation Administration’s ("FAA") approval of the Boeing 737 MAX airplanes involved in two recent fatal crashes, according to a report published Sunday in the Wall Street Journal.


The DOT probe was launched after a new Boeing 737 MAX 8 operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air crashed into the Java Sea last October. None of the 189 people on board survived.


On March 10, 2019, a second Boeing 737 MAX 8 plane crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 157 people on board the Ethiopian Airlines plane.  Mr. Dagmawit Moges, Ethiopia’s Minister of Transportation, announced on Sunday that preliminary data retrieved from the plane’s flight data recorder showed “a clear similarity” with the Lion Air incident.


The Journal updated its Sunday article to report that a federal grand jury in Washington issued a broad subpoena one day after the Ethiopian Airlines crash to an individual involved in the development of the Boeing 737 MAX series of aircraft. The subpoena, which was issued by the DOJ, reportedly seeks relevant documents, such as emails and other messages.


It is not clear whether the DOJ’s investigation is related to the DOT’s probe, according to the Journal report.


After two fatal crashes in less than five months involving the same plane model, authorities around the world -- including the U.S., Europe, China, and Indonesia -- grounded all Boeing 737 MAX airplanes

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A New, But Flawed Flight Control System Passed FAA Muster


As Boeing hustled in 2015 to catch up to the Airbus A320neo and certify its new 737 MAX series of aircraft, FAA managers pushed the agency’s safety engineers to delegate safety assessments to Boeing itself, and to speedily approve the resulting analysis.


However, the original safety analysis that Boeing delivered to the FAA for a new flight control system on the 737 MAX aircraft -- a report used to certify the plane as safe to fly -- had several crucial flaws.


That flight control system, called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), is now under scrutiny after two crashes of the jet in less than five months resulted in a March 13, 2019 FAA order to ground the plane.


A March 18, 2019 article in The Seattle Times written by aerospace reporter Dominic Gates and titled, “Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing, FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system,” provides an excellent and detailed account of what went wrong during the FAA’s expedited certification process for the 737 MAX airplane.


The only question not answered in Dominic Gates’ insightful article is this: Who had enough political juice, knowledge of the federal budgetary process, and “insider” connections in Washington to push the FAA into truncating and compromising its flight safety testing standards and certification protocols for the new 737 MAX?


The Richard Shelby/Howard Goodloe Sutton, Jr. Connection


Thanks to U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), Alabama is one of the top recipients of defense spending. Shelby has chaired and/or served on the Senate Appropriations Committee for more than a decade.


From his Senate Appropriations Committee chairmanship/member position, Sen. Shelby possessed the political juice to make all things possible within the federal bureaucracy for a defense contractor like Boeing, which ranked Number 5 in 2018 on the top 100 defense contractors by raking in $20.5 billion in defense dollars.


In fiscal year 2015, alone, the Department of Defense ranked the State of Alabama 9th overall for receiving $12.2 billion, which made up 5.9 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. This level of spending, along with a high concentration of military generals and senior management level civilians, earned Alabama the moniker of being the “Pentagon of the South.”


Sen. Shelby’s right-hand man on the Senate Appropriations Committee was Howard Goodloe Sutton, Jr. He served as a professional staff member for the Appropriations Committee from 2006 to 2013. Sutton previously served as a legislative assistant to Sen. Shelby and as the state director for Shelby’s Alabama offices. He is an expert in the federal budget and appropriations process.


In 2013, Sutton became the Director for Legislative Affairs at Boeing’s Government Operations Office in Washington. In this capacity, Sutton represented and promoted Boeing’s civil and commercial interests within the Senate, House of Representatives and all federal agencies. By 2018, Sutton was serving as the Senior Director of Political Mobilization at Boeing’s headquarters in Chicago.


In 2013, another Richard Shelby protégé, Art Cameron, became Chief of Staff for Boeing’s Government Operations Office in Washington. Prior to joining Boeing, Cameron worked with Sen. Shelby as the staff director for the Senate Appropriations Committee. In 2018, Cameron became the Boeing’s vice president of federal legislative affairs in the Government Operations Office.


Boeing's Government Operations office serves the company by: (a) protecting and advancing the company’s interests, competitiveness, and reputation, (b) winning support for Boeing programs, and (c) shaping public policy issues that impact the company.  The Government Operations office strives to ensure the regulatory and political climate in the U.S. is conducive to global aerospace and defense leadership and supports long-term American manufacturing competitiveness and innovation. In addition to these many functions, the office serves as a point of contact between federal, state and local governments, plus associated third parties, and the company’s business units.


One place where Sen. Shelby, Howard Goodloe Sutton, Jr., Art Cameron, Boeing, and other interested parties advanced Boeing’s corporate interests was at the FAA, the agency that certified the 737 MAX aircraft on March 8, 2017.


While the FAA has allowed technical experts at aircraft manufacturers act as its representatives to perform certain safety tests and approve some low-risk aviation parts for several decades, the FAA greatly expanded the scope of this outsourced safety testing and assessment responsibility in 2009 with approval from Congress under the Organization Designation Authorization (“ODA”). The ODA authorized Boeing and other manufacturers to choose the employees who approve design work on the agency’s behalf.


As a result, the FAA “delegated increasing authority to Boeing to take on more of the work of certifying the safety of its own airplanes,” reported Dominic Gates in The Seattle Times article.


In 2015, the DOT Inspector General issued a report that found the FAA lacked “an effective staffing model” and “risk-based oversight process” over the ODA program. In Washington’s political swamp, the Inspector General’s report was largely ignored.


As the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airline crashed have proven, the ODA process eventually evolved into a recipe for air disasters and death.


Did Shelby and Sutton Use their Political Clout, Knowledge of the Congressional Budgetary Process, and “Insider” Connections to Game the FAA Certification System in Boeing's Favor?


Boeing’s 737 MAX series was launched on August 30, 2011. It performed its first flight on January 29, 2016. The aircraft gained FAA certification on March 8, 2017. The first delivery was a MAX 8 on May 6, 2017, to Malaysia’s Malindo Air, which placed the aircraft into service on May 22, 2017. 


As of January 2019, the Boeing 737 MAX had received 5,011 firm orders and delivered 350 aircraft.


Following the fatal crashes of 737 MAX 8 aircraft in October 2018 and March 2019, regulatory authorities around the world grounded all 737 MAX aircraft for an indefinite time period.


The safety-review process for the Boeing 737 MAX series is ongoing. The DOT’s Inspector General and DOJ prosecutors are investigation the certification process for the 737 MAX.


The FAA obviously cut corners in the certification process and allowed Boeing to analyze and assess the safety of a key flight control system on its 737 MAX aircraft. This circumstance created a self-serving exercise for Boeing and a failure of oversight for the FAA. As a result, 346 passengers and crew members died in two 737 MAX plane crashes that were less than five months apart.


Obviously, investigators should consider Senator Richard Shelby and Boeing’s Director of Political Mobilization, Howard Goodloe Sutton, Jr., as “persons of interest” in this tragic series of fatal 737 MAX aircraft crashes. Both men were in a position to influence the FAA’s decision to allow a manufacturer of something as complex and potentially dangerous as a passenger jet to play such a large role in deciding whether its product is safe. Both men had the political clout, the motivation to help Boeing, the intimate knowledge of the FAA’s budgetary constraints, the support for ODA outsourcing initiatives, and “insider” connections within the federal bureaucracy to game the system in Boeing’s favor.


DOT and DOJ investigators need to take a long, hard look at the behind-the-scenes roles these two “persons of interest” played in the FAA’s decision to truncate and expedite the certification process for Boeing’s faulty 737 MAX series of aircraft. This is one time when old school politics in Washington’s foul political swamp might have caused the deaths of 346 innocent passengers and crew members, as well as irreparable harm to Boeing’s corporate reputation.


[Editor’s Note: Howard Goodloe Sutton, Jr., is the son of Howard Goodloe Sutton, Sr., the disgraced publisher of the Linden, Alabama Democrat-Reporter weekly newspaper who wrote a February 2019 editorial calling for the return of the Ku Klux Klan.]


PHOTO: U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), a powerful player in Washington's foul political swamp. Whether the swamp is drained or filled with dirty water, Sen. Shelby always finds a way to help his corporate friends game the system.


PHOTO: Howard Goodloe Sutton, Jr., an Alabama native and Boeing's Director of Political Mobilization. Sutton's father's newspaper, the Linden, Alabama Democrat-Reporter, announced his new job at Boeing on April 25, 2013. This media announcement is reprinted below.


© 2020 by Donald V. Watkins, P.C.