In an unprecedented move, 90 SpiceJet pilots have been barred from flying the Boeing 737 MAX till they undergo proper training. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) took this step after finding anomalies in the simulator training that these pilots underwent at a facility in Noida.
“These (90) pilots have been restrained from flying the Boeing 737 MAX. They will have to undergo the training again to the satisfaction of DGCA,” India’s aviation regulator Arun Kumar said on Tuesday, April 12. The airline’s pilot training is also under the regulator’s scanner following this alleged lapse.
Confirming the action, a SpiceJet spokesman said: “The DGCA had an observation on the training profile followed for 90 pilots. Therefore as per DGCA instructions, SpiceJet has restrained 90 pilots from operating MAX aircraft. These pilots will undergo training again to the satisfaction of the DGCA.”
The airline, which operates 11 of the 13 MAX currently in its fleet, says the 60 daily flights operated on these planes will not be affected.
“About 144 pilots are required to manage 11 aircraft (MAX). SpiceJet has currently 560 trained pilots on MAX. The trained pilot strength is more than sufficient for continuing normal operations,” the airline spokesman said. These pilots continue to remain available for other Boeing 737 aircraft.
Sources say the crucial “manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system” (MCAS) was not working properly in the simulator at the time when these 90 pilots were undergoing their training.
MCAS, a controversial flight stabilising programme developed by Boeing for MAX, was eventually found responsible for the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines B737 MAX crashes in October 2018 and March 2019, respectively, in which 346 people had lost their lives.
“A part of this system, the ‘stick shaker’ that vibrates the control column and makes a loud noise when the jet risks losing lift, was also not working properly in the simulator at the time of training these pilots,” said a source.
In both the Lion Air and Ethiopian MAX crashes, the aircraft’s nose got pushed down because of several factors that were addressed later when the MAX was allowed to fly again after a global grounding. Correct pilot training for MCAS on the MAX simulator is key to flying this plane safely.
SpiceJet is currently the only Indian airline that operates the MAX. Billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala’s Akasa will take to the skies this summer using this aircraft. Akasa has placed an order for 72 B737 MAX.
Boeing says MCAS “flight control law was designed and certified for the B737 MAX (Boeing’s hurried answer to arch-rival European Airbus’ best-selling A320neo family of planes) to enhance the pitch stability of the airplane – so that it feels and flies like other 737s.”
Boeing 737 MAX resumed operations in December 2020 two years after they were grounded after the 2018 Lion Air and 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crashes, which left 346 people dead.
A faulty flight handling system meant to keep the plane from stalling as it ascends was blamed for the crashes. The automated system was found to have pushed the nose of the plane downwards.
Aviation authorities in the US later directed Boeing to revamp the planes and implement new training protocols for the pilots. The ban on Boeing 737 MAX was lifted in India in 2021.