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Part Four: Rules of engagement
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The Boeing engineers now faced the alarming possibility that their 737 – the world's most widely used jetliner – did not meet safety standards. They alerted the FAA and asked for 24 hours to figure out what to do. The FAA agreed.

The next day, Halloween, McGrew and other Boeing engineers drove to the FAA office in Renton, Wash., a big, silver cube about 2 miles from the plant where 737s are assembled. Boeing had no idea how the FAA would respond to its plan. The government might require nothing more than inspections, or – God forbid – it could ground the entire 737 fleet. That would devastate Boeing, and it would disrupt travel plans for hundreds of thousands of people. Southwest Airlines, which has an all-737 fleet, would temporarily be put out of business.

About 25 Boeing and FAA officials crowded into a conference room. McGrew took a seat beneath a smiling photo of FAA Administrator David Hinson. In the corner was a VCR with the clock flashing "12:00" throughout the meeting.

Kikta's boss, Jim Draxler, explained what Boeing had found, with Hewett frequently interrupting to give his perspective. The Boeing engineers proposed that for the short term, the company issue an alert bulletin requiring airlines to test rudders for jams. In the long term, Boeing would redesign the valve.

An FAA engineer got right to the point: Did this cause the crash of Flight 427?

The Boeing engineers said they didn't know. The tests showed that if one tube in the valve jammed, a reversal was possible. But in 30 years, with 70-million flights, there had been only a handful of confirmed jams. None had resulted in an accident. And there was no evidence of a jam on the USAir plane.

Another FAA official noted that Boeing had steadfastly blamed the pilots, but the new evidence seemed to contradict that.

McGrew spoke up. "We've received a lot of public criticism about hiding things and not wanting to spend a lot of money," he said. "But I frankly don't care (what it costs). If there is something wrong with the airplane, I want to fix it."

The FAA accepted Boeing's plan to run tests on the rudders until a new valve could be designed.

Despite all the hubbub in Renton and Seattle, word had not gotten back to the NTSB. Boeing had made a crucial discovery, but no one had bothered to tell Haueter.

* * *

As Boeing gave the FAA its big news, Haueter and Phillips were 2,500 miles away, oblivious.

They were at a Holiday Inn near the Pittsburgh airport, giving an update on their work to the pilots union, Boeing and USAir.

Rick Howes, Boeing's coordinator for the investigation, sat through the all-day meeting without saying a word about his company's dramatic findings.

Haueter and Phillips flew back to Washington. As they got off the plane at National Airport, Haueter's beeper went off. The message read:

"MAJOR FINDING REL TO PIT / DEFECT FOUND ON SERVO VALVE."

"This is a joke," Haueter told Phillips. "This isn't real. Some jerk has figured out our paging system." They headed home.

The message had come from Ron Schleede, one of Haueter's bosses. He had been working late when Boeing finally called to share the news. Schleede transmitted the beeper message to Haueter, then walked downstairs to the bar at L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, where NTSB Chairman Hall was having a drink.

"Jim," Schleede said. "I think we've got it."

photo

But they didn't have it. They still had no proof that the valve on the USAir plane had jammed or reversed.

Boeing's failure to alert Haueter about its big discovery further damaged the company's credibility. McGrew said he had wanted to notify the NTSB sooner, but Boeing's top executives felt it was a safety issue and their first priority was to alert the FAA.

The snub so angered Haueter that he couldn't let it go. He was on vacation the next week, but made a point of calling Howes to chew him out.

"The ramification" for Boeing, Haueter said later, "was that they lost a lot of trust."

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