A US federal grand jury has indicted a former Boeing chief test pilot for fraud for allegedly deceiving aviation regulators evaluating the safety of the 737 Max jet.
Mark Forkner, 49, who now lives in Texas, was charged with providing the Federal Aviation Administration with false and incomplete information about the aeroplane’s flight control process, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.
The flight control system, which can push down the jet’s nose repeatedly, was a critical factor in two crashes of the 737 Max in five months over 2018 and 2019 that killed a combined 346 people. The jet was grounded worldwide for almost two years, and Boeing paid $2.5bn in January as part of a deferred prosecution agreement.
“In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forkner allegedly withheld critical information from regulators,” said the Texas northern district’s acting US attorney, Chad Meacham. “His callous choice to mislead the FAA hampered the agency’s ability to protect the flying public and left pilots in the lurch.”
Forkner’s attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.
Text messages sent by Forkner that became public two years ago showed he talked about “Jedi-mind tricking regulators”. In one exchange in November 2016, he said that MCAS appeared to be “running rampant” on the simulator, activating at slower speeds than what he had told regulators. He added, “[S]o I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly).”
After the simulator flight, Forkner confirmed with a Boeing senior engineer that MCAS would activate at low speeds, according to the indictment. But two days after his simulator experience, he began urging regulators to delete MCAS from their report “since it’s outside the normal operating envelope”.
“This representation was materially false because Forkner knew that [FAA regulators] had ‘agreed not to reference MCAS’ based on outdated and incorrect information,” the indictment said.
The jet’s flight manual and pilot-training manuals did not mention MCAS. The FAA was unaware it existed until after the first crash.
Boeing and the FAA declined to comment.
Boeing had wanted to minimise differences between the Max and an earlier model of the company’s best-selling narrow-body jet, the 737 NG, to avoid putting off airlines which were reluctant to shoulder the cost of retraining pilots.
The aircraft maker, which previously had said simulator training was unnecessary for the Max, reversed its policy in January last year.
Forkner deprived US carriers, including Texas-based American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, of material economic information when they were deciding whether or not to buy the Max, according to the indictment, “which allowed Boeing to obtain uninterrupted and undiminished 737 Max sales and revenue”.
Forkner is charged with two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce and four counts of wire fraud. The former carries a maximum penalty of 10 years for each count, and the latter 20 years per count. He is scheduled to appear in court on Friday.
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