A federal grand jury in the Northern District of Texas has indicted Boeing’s former chief technical pilot for allegedly lying to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Evaluation Group (FAA AEG) about Boeing’s 737 Max airplane, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice. All 737 Max planes around the world were grounded in 2019 after two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people and subsequent investigations found a change in the automation controls was largely to blame.
Mark A. Forkner, who now lives in Texas, allegedly provided false and incomplete information about the Boeing 737 Max and its new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) starting in late 2016 until he left the company in the summer of 2018. The MCAS would incorrectly read that a plane was about to stall out and try to correct the nose of the aircraft by pushing it down. Pilots were unable to correct the faulty reading, leading to the two horrific crashes.
As head of the 737 MAX Flight Technical Team, the 49-year-old Forkner allegedly learned about problems with the MCAS in November of 2016, but, “intentionally withheld this information and deceived the FAA AEG,” according to prosecutors.
From the Department of Justice:
Because of his alleged deceit, the FAA AEG deleted all reference to MCAS from the final version of the 737 MAX FSB Report published in July 2017. As a result, pilots flying the 737 MAX for Boeing’s U.S.‑based airline customers were not provided any information about MCAS in their manuals and training materials. Forkner sent copies of the 737 MAX FSB Report to Boeing’s U.S.-based 737 MAX airline customers, but withheld from these customers important information about MCAS and the 737 MAX FSB Report evaluation process.
The newly unsealed indictment cites an email sent by Forkner around November 15, 2016 where he seems to admit to lying to the FAA, at least accidentally.
But it was less the initial and perhaps unintentional lie that got Forkner into trouble. Prosecutors allege that Forkner never told the FAA about the new findings and the problems identified with MCAS in Boeing’s flight simulators.
The first crash involving the 737 Max was Lion Air Flight 610, which went down near Indonesia on October 29, 2018, killing all 189 people on board. The second crash was Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which went down in Ethiopia on March 10, 2019, killing all 157 people on board.
The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee issued a report in September of 2020 that included “disturbing revelations” faulting Boeing engineers, Boeing management, and the FAA for the crashes. That investigation uncovered several shocking emails, including one from April of 2017, where an unnamed Boeing employee wrote, “this airplane is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.” Another email from May of 2018 read, “I’ll be shocked if the FAA passes this turd,” which caused another employee to reply, “They are doing all this last-minute shit.”
Boeing settled with the DOJ on fraud and conspiracy charges earlier this year, agreeing to pay out roughly $2.5 billion, but this is the first indictment of an individual related to the Boeing 737 Max scandal. Forkner, who joined Boeing in 2012 and left in July of 2018, has been charged with two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts and four counts of wire fraud.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said in a statement.
“In doing so, he deprived airlines and pilots from knowing crucial information about an important part of the airplane’s flight controls. Regulators like the FAA serve a vital function to ensure the safety of the flying public. To anyone contemplating criminally impeding a regulator’s function, this indictment makes clear that the Justice Department will pursue the facts and hold you accountable,” Polite continued.
Forkner faces 20 years in prison for each count of wire fraud and 10 years in prison for each count of fraud involving aircraft parts, a federal crime because it involves interstate commerce.
The Boeing 737 Max has been revamped, tested, and cleared to fly again by the FAA.