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Boeing knew about a 737 MAX software gap

Boeing 737 MAX 9
Boeing’s first 737 MAX 9 jet makes its debut at the company’s Renton plant in 2017. (Boeing Photo)

Boeing says a warning alert system that figures in the investigation of two catastrophic 737 MAX crashes didn’t work the way it was supposed to because of a software flaw that engineers identified a year before the accidents.

The revelation adds a new twist to the debate over the company’s safety practices.

In this case, the debate focuses on a feature known as the “AOA Disagree” alert, which is supposed to light up in the cockpit if there’s a mismatch in data coming from two angle-of-attack sensors on the plane. Investigators suggest that bad sensor data played a key role in October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia, which killed all 189 people aboard the plane; and March’s Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed 157.

Within days of the Ethiopian crash, all 737 MAX airplanes were grounded worldwide.

Boeing engineers knew about a problem with the “AOA Disagree” alert well before that. The alert was originally intended to be a standard feature on the 737 MAX and the previous generation of 737 planes, known as the 737 NG (for “Next Generation”). But in a statement issued on May 5, Boeing said that in 2017, several months after deliveries began, engineers became aware that the 737 MAX display system software didn’t meet the original requirements.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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