Boeing's former 737 MAX test pilot, Mark Forkner, was indicted for fraud Thursday for allegedly misleading regulators about problems tied to the aircraft's two fatal crashes. The ex-chief technical pilot is the first Boeing employee to be charged over the 737 Max's failures.
In October 2019, pilots struggled to regain control of the MAX and it plunged into the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia. Five months later, another MAX crashed near Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia just six minutes after takeoff, killing all on board and forcing regulators around the globe to ground the plane. Three hundred and forty-six people perished in both accidents.
Investigators found that both crashes were tied to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, software, which had been designed to help stabilize the jet after heavier, repositioned engines placed on the aircraft caused the plane's nose to point too far upward in certain circumstances.
In both crashes, incorrect data from a faulty sensor caused the MCAS to misfire, forcing the planes to nose down repeatedly. MCAS was not mentioned in the pilot manual -- allowing pilots to enter the MAX cockpit without simulator training that would have cost the airlines more money.
"In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forkner allegedly withheld critical information from regulators," Acting U.S. Attorney Chad E. Meacham for the Northern District of Texas said in a release. "His callous choice to mislead the FAA hampered the agency's ability to protect the flying public and left pilots in the lurch, lacking information about certain 737 MAX flight controls. The Department of Justice will not tolerate fraud – especially in industries where the stakes are so high."
Internal messages that surfaced in October 2019 between Forkner and another Boeing pilot appeared to show the company knew about problems with MCAS in 2016, two years before the crashes.
The documents released by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee show Forkner told FAA officials that MCAS was safe despite calling it "egregious" based on simulator tests, according to internal messages and emails.
"I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)," Forkner said to his colleague in the messages.
Forkner was the main point of contact between the administration and Boeing in regard to areas like pilot training and manual recommendations, an FAA official explained at the time.
Boeing said in a statement in 2019 that Forkner's comments "reflected a reaction to a simulator program that was not functioning properly, and that was still undergoing testing."
In January 2020, Boeing released more than 100 pages of internal communications that the company itself called "completely unacceptable."
In one exchange, an unnamed Boeing employee says the 737 Max "is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys," after complaining about the flight management computer.
In another 2018 message a Boeing employee asks, "Would you put your family on a MAX simulator trained aircraft?"
"I wouldn't," he said.
"No," the colleague responded.
Boeing has since rewritten the MCAS software, receiving the FAA's approval for the jet to reenter commercial service on Nov. 18, 2020.
In January, The U.S. Justice Department charged The Boeing Company with "conspiracy to defraud the United States" -- concluding after a lengthy investigation that the company knowingly misled regulators while seeking approval for its 737 MAX aircraft.
In an SEC filing, Boeing said it agreed to the charge "based on the conduct of two former 737 MAX program technical pilots."