Crash expert Greg Feith slams critics of 737 MAX certification process

March 22, 2019
The 737 MAX

One of the world’s leading crash expert, Greg Feith has slammed critics of 737 MAX certification process.

Feith, a retired senior crash investigator at the US National Transport Safety Bureau, is one of the world most respected authorities on the air accidents and today is a commentator and safety consultant.

Feith was with the NTSB for 21 years and investigated some of the most famous and difficult air crashes in history including Eastern Airlines flight 980 which crashed into Mt. Illimani at an elevation of 21,223 feet MSL in 1985. He was the Investigator in Charge of the NTSB “Go-Team” from 1993 to 2001 and in 2014 Feith was inducted as a member of the Living Legends of Aviation.

He has also investigated some of the most defining air crashes in history; Aloha Airlines Flight 243, American Airlines Flight 1420, American Eagle Flight 4184, British Airways Flight 9, Korean Air Flight 801, SilkAir Flight 185, Swissair Flight 111, USAir Flight 1016 and ValuJet Flight 592. (More details on Mr. Feith are at the bottom of this story)

Mr Greg Feith on the NBC’s Today Show

Speaking with Feith warns that “there continues to be a definite disconnect between some of the TV talking heads with a title and their understanding of reality in various aspects of aviation” and criticized Captain Sully Sullenberger for his comments in an opinion piece in Market Watch.

Captain Sullenberger became famous for his landing of an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in 2009.

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Feith said that “it is apparent that he (Sully) felt the need to opine on matters in which he has no expertise in accident investigation or the aircraft certification processes, all of which are outside the realm of flying an airplane.”

“To make statements such as” Boeing and the FAA have been found wanting in this ugly saga that began years ago but has come home to roost with two terrible fatal crashes, with no survivors, in less than five months, on a new airplane type, the Boeing 737 MAX, something that is unprecedented in modern aviation history” is not only baseless and without merit, but irresponsible from an “aviation professional.”

Feith asks: “What proof has he presented to support such a statement other than his personal dislike for Boeing and/or the FAA? To levy an accusation that, “Staffing has not been adequate for FAA employees to oversee much of the critically important work of validating and approving aircraft certification. Instead, much of the work has been outsourced by designating aircraft manufacturer employees to do the work on behalf of the FAA. This, of course, has created inherent conflicts of interest, when employees working for the company whose products must be certified to meet safety standards are the ones doing much of the work of certifying them. There simply are not nearly enough FAA employees to do this important work in-house” maybe sensational from a media perspective but is again baseless and without merit.”

The FAA responded to Mr. Sullenberger’s comments by providing “MarketWatch” with a simple, but informative explanation of the aircraft certification process.

Here are the important portions of what was published by MarketWatch:

“A spokesman for the FAA responded to Sullenberger’s article with a statement to MarketWatch. “The FAA’s aircraft certification processes are well established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs,” it said. “The 737-Max certification program followed the FAA’s standard certification process.”

As part of any certification project, the spokesman said the FAA conducts the following checks:

• Reviewing any proposed designs and the methods that will be used to show that these designs and the overall airplane comply with FAA standards

• Conducting certain ground and flight tests to demonstrate that the airplane meets the FAA standards

• Evaluating the airplane to determine the required maintenance and operational suitability for the introduction of the aircraft into service

• Working with other civil aviation authorities on their approval of the aircraft, based primarily on work already completed by the FAA

“The process from initial application to final certification for the 737 Max took almost five years. Boeing applied for certification in June 2012. The FAA added it to the 737 type certificate in March 2017,” the FAA statement added.

Feith said that “Capt. Sullenberger also wrote that much of the FAA’s work has been outsourced “by designating aircraft manufacturer employees to do the work on behalf of the FAA. This, of course, has created inherent conflicts of interest, when employees working for the company whose products must be certified to meet safety standards are the ones doing much of the work of certifying them.”

But in fact, the FAA points out that this process has been in place since 1958. “Federal law passed in 1958 authorizes the FAA to delegate to a qualified private person the ability to issue certificates and conduct certain exams on behalf of the agency. The Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) program is the means by which the FAA grants designee authority to organizations or companies.”

“ODA holders are typically authorized to perform the types of functions that they would normally seek from the FAA. Teams of FAA engineers and inspectors conduct regular oversight of an ODA to ensure any approvals or certificates issued to meet the FAA’s strict safety standards. The FAA has issued scores of ODAs nationwide,” the FAA said.

Feith said that “before all of the conspiracy believers and ‘JR investigators’ weigh in on the subject of aircraft certification and the perceived relationship between Boeing and the FAA, (which has multiple agencies and the public questioning), please do some homework on how the entire aircraft certification process evolves from start to finish with the FAA, and be sure to study the aircraft certification requirements of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). This should give you some insight into the fact that an aircraft manufactured in the U.S., France, Great Britain, Brazil or anywhere else in the world is scrutinized by various certifying authorities.”

Feith highlights the EASA process thus:

Before a newly developed aircraft model may enter into operation, it must obtain a type certificate from the responsible aviation regulatory authority. Since 2003, EASA is responsible for the certification of aircraft in the EU and for some European non-EU Countries. This certificate testifies that the type of aircraft meets the safety requirements set by the European Union.

The 4 steps of the type-certification process:

1. Technical Familiarisation and Certification Basis:
The aircraft manufacturer presents the project to EASA when it is considered to have reached a sufficient degree of maturity. The EASA certification team and the set of rules that will apply for the certification of this specific aircraft type are being established (Certification Basis).

2. Establishment of the Certification Programme:
EASA and the manufacturer need to define and agree on the means to demonstrate compliance of the aircraft type with each requirement of the Certification Basis. This goes hand in hand with the identification of EASA’s “level of involvement” during the certification process.

3. Compliance Demonstration:
The aircraft manufacturer must demonstrate compliance of its product with regulatory requirements: the structure, engines, control systems, electrical systems and flight performance are analyzed against the Certification Basis. This compliance demonstration is done by analysis during ground testing (such as tests on the structure to withstand bird strikes, fatigue tests and tests in simulators) but also by means of tests during flight. EASA experts perform a detailed examination of this compliance demonstration, by means of document reviews in their offices in Cologne and by attending some of these compliance demonstrations (test witnessing). This is the longest phase of the type certification process. In the case of large aircraft, the period to complete the compliance demonstration is set at five years and may be extended, if necessary.

4. Technical closure and issue of approval:
If technically satisfied with the compliance demonstration by the manufacturer, EASA closes the investigation and issues the certificate. EASA delivers the primary certification for European aircraft models which are also being validated in parallel by foreign authorities for operation in their airspaces, e.g. the FAA for the US or TCCA for Canada. Conversely, EASA will validate the FAA certification of US aircraft models (or TCCA certification of Canadian models) according to applicable Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreements between the EU and the concerned Third Country.”

U.S. component parts have this certifying authority and aircraft manufacturers including Boeing have been certified by the FAA, EASA, and others using the methodology previously discussed. This process has been successful in certifying aircraft that have been updated or produced as a new aircraft such as the next-gen 737, 747-8, 757, 767, 777, and 787.

“No conspiracy theory or speculation, just education,” says Feith.


More details of Feith’s career. 

He also has appeared in several television series, such as the Canadian Documentary series Mayday (also known as Air Emergency in the United States and Air Crash Investigation in other parts of the world), Survival in the Sky, and, most recently, Seconds from Disaster.

Feith also hosted his own series Secrets of the Black Box on the History Channel, highlighting the major investigations that he led. He appeared in a made-for-TV movie Crash: The Mystery of Flight 1501 as the co-pilot of the ill-fated DC-9. He is well known for his frequent public speaking engagements at schools, aviation groups and trade associations. Feith is a pilot and owns and flies his Piper PA-24 Comanche.



  1. Given the amount of recent criticism of the certification process, it's good that an expert is able to defend it. My question is, though, the process is thorough and complete, how come an apparent design fault that resulted in two crashes and hundreds of fatalities has slipped through?
  2. Good point but there are many in the industry who would argue that it was not a design fault at all. It is a background system, f which there are hundreds on a large commercial jet. The error that Boeing and Airbus are making is that they have assumed, along with regulators, a certain level of pilot experience. Switching this runaway Stab Trim off is a memory item.