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Captain Sullenberger tells Congress, Boeing 737 Max crashes "should never have happened"

Sullenberger blasts Boeing & FAA in op-ed
Captain "Sully" Sullenberger blasts Boeing and FAA in op-ed 02:55

Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III testified Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on Aviation. The hero pilot answered questions about the Boeing 737 Max 8, the type of aircraft involved in the deadly crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 last October and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March. 

"These crashes are demonstrable evidence that our current system of aircraft design and certification has failed us. These accidents should never have happened," Sullenberger said in his prepared remarks, adding that he has 52 years of flying experience. "I know that we must consider all the human factors of these accidents, and how system design determines how many, and what kinds of, errors will be made and how consequential they will be." 

"These two recent crashes happened in foreign countries, but if we do not address all of the important issues and factors they can and will happen here," Sullenberger said.  

Congress Boeing Plane
Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger speaks during a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on the status of the Boeing 737 MAX on Capitol Hill, June 19, 2019. Andrew Harnik / AP

Sullenberger rose to worldwide fame on January 15, 2009, when he piloted U.S. Airways Flight 1549 to land safely in the Hudson River after it blew both engines in a bird strike after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport. All 155 people on board survived because of Sullenberger's quick thinking and professional actions. It has been dubbed "The Miracle on the Hudson." 

"I'm one of the relatively small group of people who have experienced such a sudden crisis — and lived to share what we learned about it," he told House members on Wednesday. "I can tell you firsthand that the startle factor is real and it is huge — it interferes with one's ability to quickly analyze the crisis and take effective action. Within seconds, these crews would have been fighting for their lives in the fight of their lives." 

Sullenberger detailed how the failure of a single "angle of attack" sensor on the Boeing 737 Max 8 flights quickly caused "multiple instrument indication anomalies" and "false warnings," as an automated flight-control system called MCAS overrode pilots' commands.

He said his own experience in recent 737 Max simulator trainings demonstrated to him the unprecedented difficulties the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airline pilot crews encountered when trying to handle the malfunction.

"Prior to these accidents, I think it is unlikely that any U.S. pilots were confronted with this scenario in simulator training," Sullenberger said. CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave reported last year that U.S. airline pilots were initially given just 56 minutes of training on an iPad about the differences between the new Boeing Max planes and the older 737s.

Others at the hearing agreed with Sullenberger and disputed the FAA's previous insistence that pilots had been sufficiently trained how to use the MCAS system, as well as Boeing's insinuation that international pilots did not "completely follow" instructions of how to prevent an MCAS malfunction. 

"Again, the failure was Boeing did not disclose the existence of MCAS to the pilot community around the word," said Captain Daniel F. Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association, who testified alongside Sullenberger.  "Therefore robust training was not conducted." 

Boeing issued a statement in response to the hearing, saying:

"Safety is a shared priority and we are working closely with our industry partners to learn from these tragedies, answer their questions, and take steps to re-earn people's trust and ensure accidents like these never happen again. Boeing continues to work with global regulators and our airline customers as they determine training requirements."

In May, CBS News obtained audio from the American Airlines pilots' union confronting Boeing about new features to the 737 Max that factored into the two deadly crashes

"They didn't ever tell us the system existed," Carey said Wednesday, referring to Boeing and MCAS. 

During the hearing, Sullenberger urged Congress to provide the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with sufficient funding to conduct necessary oversight. He also testified that the FAA must remain independent from political and economic influence, and asked for protection for whistleblowers.  

"We get what we measure. We get what we reward. And right now, in the important ways, the incentives are not aligned toward consistent public good sufficiently in all our organizations," Sullenberger said of the aviation industry. 

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