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Former Boeing chief test pilot indicted for fraud over 737 Max crashes

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Thu Oct 14, 2021 - The Washington Post
By Devlin Barrett and Michael Laris 

A former chief test pilot for Boeing has been charged with allegedly lying to federal authorities about a part of the flight controls on 737 Max airplanes — a model that led to horrific crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed hundreds of people.

The Justice Department announced the indictment Thursday of Mark A. Forkner, 49, charging that he deceived the Federal Aviation Administration during the agency’s evaluation and certification of the 737 Max airplane.

Two 737 Max jets crashed in late 2018 and early 2019, killing 346 people and prompting airlines to ground that model of plane while authorities investigated how its computer systems may have led to the fatalities.

Boeing chief executive apologizes for lives lost in 737 Max crashes

“In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forkner allegedly withheld critical information from regulators,” said Chad E. Meacham, acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. “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 charges against Forkner include two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce and four counts of wire fraud. He is due in federal court in Fort Worth on Friday. The most serious charge against him carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

According to the indictment, Forkner led the 737 Max Flight Technical Team, and had a responsibility to provide accurate and complete information to the FAA about differences between that plane and another version of the 737.

In late 2016, federal prosecutors say, Forkner discovered information about an important change made to part of the plane’s flight controls, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Forkner allegedly decided not to share the information with the FAA. As a result, authorities say, the manual instructing pilots how to maneuver that model of plane did not contain critical information that was needed to understand the MCAS system.

On Oct. 29, 2018, a 737 Max operating as Lion Air Flight 610 crashed near Jakarta, Indonesia. While the investigation into the MCAS system was underway, a second 737 Max, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, crashed in that country. The second crash caused officials to ground all such planes while they intensified their investigation.

Kenneth A. Polite Jr., the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement that Forkner “allegedly abused his position of trust by intentionally withholding critical information about MCAS during the FAA evaluation and certification of the 737 Max and from Boeing’s U.S. based airline customers. In doing so, he deprived airlines and pilots from knowing crucial information about an important part of the airplane’s flight controls.”

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On 10/14/2021 at 6:42 PM, Airband said:

In late 2016, federal prosecutors say, Forkner discovered information about an important change made to part of the plane’s flight controls, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

So enough people knew of a need and obviously had the "Go Ahead" to develop and incorporate the "Important change" before Forkner became aware of it in late 2016.

Who would they be and where are they in the chain of responsibility for MCAS?

Sounds like Forkner should have some co-defendants to keep him company.

Not saying he is Lily White in this but he sure looks like a lonely scapegoat.

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21 hours ago, Innuendo said:

So enough people knew of a need and obviously had the "Go Ahead" to develop and incorporate the "Important change" before Forkner became aware of it in late 2016.

Who would they be and where are they in the chain of responsibility for MCAS?

Sounds like Forkner should have some co-defendants to keep him company.

Not saying he is Lily White in this but he sure looks like a lonely scapegoat.

 

This would appear to be a situation where you would expect to see the term "accountable executive" within the box of accused. Seriously, after all the crap over the years justifying  ever increasing executive salaries, the accountability seems weak at best.

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Boeing’s 737 Max Crisis Wasn’t One Man’s Fault

The plane’s twin crashes resulted from systemic breakdowns in company culture, management oversight and airplane safety regulation. No single villain is to blame. 

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Mon Oct 18, 2021 - Bloomberg News
By Brooke Sutherland 

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'The facts detailed in the indictment aren’t flattering for Forkner. But the idea that he was operating as some kind of rogue employee and should shoulder this much blame defies logic.'

The first indictment in the Boeing Co. 737 Max crisis should not be the last. 

Late last week, a federal grand jury charged the company’s former chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner, with deceiving Federal Aviation Administration officials in their evaluation of the Max and scheming to defraud the plane maker’s customers. Forkner is the only person to be indicted thus far in connection with the lead-up to the twin crashes of the Max, which killed 346 people, prompted a nearly two-year worldwide grounding of the best-selling jet and caused a moment of reckoning for the aviation regulators who blessed the plane as safe. Boeing’s market value remains about half of what it was before the Max was grounded; the damage to its reputation and that of the FAA is immeasurable.

Forkner was an important liaison for the FAA. His responsibilities included coordinating with the regulator on information pertinent to pilot-training requirements. But he was also a mid-level manager. On Friday, he pleaded not guilty to the charges. His lawyer, David Gerger, told the Wall Street Journal that his client was being made into a scapegoat. Gerger didn’t respond to a request for additional comment. Boeing declined to comment. 

The Max crashes have been linked to flight-control software — known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — that was originally added to guard against an aerodynamic stall, but instead repeatedly forced the planes to nosedive and set off a cacophony of alerts that overwhelmed pilots. The FAA excluded details on MCAS from manuals and training materials because officials believed it turned on only in extreme situations. They thought this, according to the indictment, because Forkner allegedly declined to inform regulators when he learned that the scope of MCAS had been expanded so that the system would activate in more normal flying conditions.

A key sales pitch for the Max was that pilots who were already well-versed in flying older 737 models would need limited additional training. Proper consideration of MCAS may have led the FAA to require more extensive training, which would have been expensive and perhaps led some airlines to choose planes built by rival Airbus SE instead. “In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forkner allegedly withheld critical information from regulators,” Chad Meacham, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, said in a Department of Justice statement on the indictment. “There is no excusing those who deceive safety regulators for the sake of personal gain or commercial expediency,” added Eric Soskin, inspector general for the Department of Transportation. If convicted, Forkner faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for each count of wire fraud and 10 years for each count of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce.

The facts detailed in the indictment aren’t flattering for Forkner. But the idea that he was operating as some kind of rogue employee and should shoulder this much blame defies logic. The indictment says Forkner was aware that Boeing had agreed to compensate at least one airline customer if the FAA required more significant pilot training. It doesn’t say he made that decision himself. Nor was he the one who elected to expand the scope of MCAS in the first place, without the kind of fixes and adjustments that Boeing has since made in order to get the Max flying again. It appears that he wasn’t even properly informed of the rework. “I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” Forkner wrote in a message to a colleague included in the legal filings after seemingly stumbling across the increased range of MCAS in a simulated test flight. 

It wasn’t one person who acted for the sake of personal gain or commercial expediency; it was a culture that encouraged such behavior and a company that lacked the kind of inter-divisional coordination and quality controls necessary to churn out safe airplanes. 

The language in the DOJ’s statement on Forkner echoes that of a January deal with Boeing to settle a criminal charge of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government with essentially a slap on the wrist. The headline penalty was $2.5 billion, but the vast majority of that represented customer compensation that Boeing would have needed to pay regardless. The deferred prosecution agreement requires Boeing to cooperate with investigators, enhance reporting on internal controls and meet routinely with regulators to prove it’s doing all it can to discourage future infractions. But the DOJ concluded that Boeing didn’t need an independent compliance monitor, in part because its “misconduct was neither pervasive across the organization, nor undertaken by a large number of employees, nor facilitated by senior management.”

Really? Forkner left Boeing in July 2018, according to the indictment. The first Max crash happened in October of that year. It took Boeing and former CEO Dennis Muilenburg many months after the second accident in March 2019 to take full accountability for the company’s role in the crashes. Boeing repeatedly pushed overly optimistic deadlines for the Max’s return, to the point where, in late 2019, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson publicly rebuked the company. It wasn’t until January 2020, 10 months into the Max’s grounding, that Boeing finally shifted its position and recommended simulator training for pilots.

Despite the crash, Muilenburg was paid a total of $23.4 million in 2018, while board members — including current CEO Dave Calhoun — earned an average of $345,000 that year. Muilenburg was ousted in December 2019 but has re-emerged as CEO and chairman of New Vista Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company that raised more than $200 million earlier this year to hunt for deals in the space or air mobility industry. There’s something fundamentally lopsided about this. 

It’s worth noting that it’s possibly also in the U.S. government’s interest to paint the Max crisis as the work of rogue employees; a full-scale criminal prosecution of Boeing at the corporate level may have complicated the company’s ability to continue receiving federal contracts. Boeing is one of the top U.S. defense contractors and America’s only maker of large commercial jets. Casting blame on the Boeing employees who communicated with the FAA also diverts attention from why regulators failed to probe more thoroughly. The Journal has reported that officials elsewhere within the FAA knew about key changes to MCAS, even if those whom Forkner interacted with on pilot training did not. 

The 737 Max crisis reflects systemic breakdowns in company culture, management oversight and airplane safety regulation. If there is a primary villain in this mess, it’s not Mark Forkner. 

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