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    FAA to face heat in Congress after deadly crashes of Boeing's 737 Max

    Lawmakers will question U.S. aviation safety officials on Wednesday afternoon about how their agency approved the Boeing 737 Max aircraft that has been involved in two fatal crashes in five months.

    The Senate's Commerce subcommittee's hearing, scheduled for 3 p.m. ET, is the first since the U.S. joined dozens of other nations in grounding the planes earlier this month. Panel members are likely to raise questions about a plan for a software fix to the jets that Boeing said it gave the Federal Aviation Administration in January.

    Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell, the Transportation Department's Inspector General Calvin Scovel and Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, are scheduled to testify Wednesday.

    A key issue of the hearing will be how much scrutiny regulators gave the new design of the aircraft before signing off on it in March 2017. Investigators in the October crash of a Lion Air plane in Indonesia have indicated pilots were battling an automatic stall prevention system Boeing added to the jets before their debut. That program, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, repeatedly pushes the nose of the plane down if a sensor perceives the aircraft is in a stall.

    Investigators have said they saw "clear similarities" between that crash, which killed 189 people, and that of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 that went down after takeoff on March 10, killing all 157 people on board.

    Pilots said they were not aware Boeing had added the system until after the Lion Air crash. The FAA did not mandate simulator training, and some pilots said they received an iPad training course of about an hour to transition from the older models of the Boeing 737 to the 737 Max.

    Boeing has changed the software to give pilots greater control, and the FAA expects to have a final version in the coming days, according to a person familiar with the matter. The agency needs to approve the program before it can be installed on aircraft.

    Boeing said it took a test flight with the new software along with the FAA on March 12, the day before the U.S. grounded the planes, and that that flight "demonstrated that the airplane, with the updated software, still meets certification requirements."

    Among the changes Boeing has made to the system are the use of two sensors that gauge the angle of attack — the angle of the plane relative to oncoming air — instead of one, and the limits on how many times the plane's nose will automatically tilt downward when MCAS is engaged.

    The Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer plans to outline and demonstrate the changes to the 737 Max to pilots, airlines, regulators and media on Wednesday.

    Lawmakers have increased scrutiny on Boeing and the FAA following the two crashes. Late Tuesday, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, urged the FAA to conduct a third-party review of the 737 Max. Last week, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called for a formal audit of the plane's certification.

    Also Tuesday, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max declared an emergency shortly after takeoff and returned to Orlando, Florida, after reporting an unrelated engine problem. The plane, which was not carrying any passengers, was bound for Victorville, Calif., for storage.

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