The Boeing 737 MAX is fixed and flying safely, but the fallout from two crashes that killed 346 people isn’t over for Boeing. According to a recent report, its former Chief Technical Pilot for the MAX program may be facing criminal charges for misleading regulators.
Boeing was charged with criminal fraud and ordered to pay over $2.5 billion in the MAX scandal. $500 million of it went to victims’ families, $1.77 billion to the airlines and $243.6 million to the government for defrauding the government. In addition to the low fine, the Deferred Prosecution Agreement exonerates Boeing’s top officials.
Instead, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, the sword may fall on the company’s former 737 Chief Technical Pilot, Mark Forkner. The DPA called out Forkner as being involved in the fraud and misconduct associated with the certification of the MAX aircraft.
Here’s a quick recap of how Boeing got here with the MAX aircraft:
The 737 MAX features larger and more powerful engines compared with its 737 NG predecessor. Because these engines are larger, they had to be installed higher and farther forward than the previous engines. As a result, the aerodynamic balance of the plane changed.
Through use of what is called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), the MAX was supposed to fly like the 737 NG and thus not require pilots to take additional training to fly the MAX. The system works by automatically adjusting the trim of the horizontal stabilizer at the rear of the plane to push the nose down. It’s supposed to activate when the plane is at a high angle of attack to prevent stalls.
The MCAS system relied on just a single angle of attack sensor and pilots weren’t informed of its existence. In the event of a bad sensor reading the MCAS system would put the aircraft into a dive. An indicator for the AOA sensor was available, but as an option. Boeing fixed these problems and more.
Forkner’s role in the 737 MAX was pretty important. As reported by the Seattle Times, he had the job of convincing both regulators and airlines that the MAX didn’t need any MAX-specific training:
Pressed by the Justice Department, Boeing turned over a series of emails and shocking instant message exchanges between Forkner and his deputy, Patrik Gustavsson, in which Forkner bragged about how he had “jedi mind tricked” airlines into choosing the minimum pilot training option — and so avoided the need for extensive training of pilots on full flight simulators that would make the MAX a more expensive and less competitive airplane.
To pull that off, Forkner persuaded the FAA in March 2016 to omit any description of MCAS from the pilot manuals, arguing that it would activate only in extreme circumstances — as he said in an email, “WAY outside” normal flying conditions.
Forkner actively worked to the same end with regulators around the world, whom he disparaged in private messages as “fools” and “idiots.”
Tragically, Forkner even dissuaded Lion Air officials who wanted to train their pilots on MAX simulators that this was “a difficult and unnecessary training burden for your airline.”
He mocked the Indonesian airline representatives for their “stupidity” in asking for such training and boasted that his efforts to dissuade them had saved Boeing “a sick amount of $$$$.”
The MCAS software was later changed to operate well within the MAX’s normal flight envelope, but nobody told the FAA or the airlines about it.
Boeing went on to blame Lion Air’s pilots for the October 2018 crash that killed 189.
As noted by the Seattle Times, Forkner did not cooperate with the Department of Justice’s investigation into the MAX’s certification and tried to avoid turning over documents to federal prosecutors. He left Boeing to fly for Southwest Airlines three months before the Lion Air crash, then left Southwest last year.
According to the Wall Street Journal, citing sources familiar with the matter, Forkner is expected to be charged in the coming weeks.