The Justice Department announced Thursday charges against a former Boeing test pilot on accusations of lying to the Federal Aviation Administration concerning software in the 737 MAX aircraft. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
Oct. 14 (UPI) -- A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted a former top Boeing test pilot for fraud on accusations he deceived U.S. regulators about a software issue that has been connected to two deadly crashes of the manufacturer's 737 Max aircraft.
The jet was grounded worldwide for nearly two years in March of 2019 after two crashes involving the 737 Max within a span of five months, killing all 346 people on board Lion Air Flight 610 on Oct. 29, 2018, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019.
Investigators have implicated the aircrafts' Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System software for forcing both jets into a nosedive shortly after takeoff.
The six-count indictment accuses Mark Forkner, 49, of Keller, Texas, of withholding information about the MCAS from the Federal Aviation Administration's Aircraft Evaluation Group to defraud Boeing's U.S.-based airline customers of tens of millions of dollars for Boeing.
"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," Acting U.S. Attorney Chad Meacham for the Northern District of Texas said in a statement.
According to the indictment, Boeing began developing the 737 Max in June of 2011, and it was Forkner's job as the aircraft's chief technical pilot to provide the FAA AEG with information it needed to create a report that all U.S.-based airlines used to train their pilots to fly the aircraft.
Prosecutors said the MCAS was to prevent the nose of the 737 Max from pitching up during a specific and rarely conducted flight maneuver the aircraft had to be able to do to achieve certification. The software was needed for the Max and not the previous generation 737 NG, as the former was fitted with larger engines to increase fuel efficiency that caused the nose to pitch.
The indictment states that Forkner knew that if the differences between the new aircraft and the previous generation 737 exceeded a certain amount that a different training level would be applied to the aircraft and would cost Boeing million dollars.
"If we lose Level B [it] will be thrown squarely on my shoulders," Forkner said in a December 2014 email, according to the indictment. "It was Mark, yes Mark! Who cost Boeing tens of millions of dollars!"
In November of 2016, Forkner learned during a flight simulated test that the MCAS kicked in at a much slower speed than he and Boeing had told the FAA AEG in 2015, the court documents said.
"So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)" he wrote to another Boeing employee, the indictment states.
Two days after Forkner conducted the flight simulation, he and other Boeing employees received a draft from the FAA AEG of its report that U.S. airlines would use for training on the 737 Max, and instead of informing them of the issue with the MCAS he caused Boeing to send the FAA AEG proposed edits that included deleting "any reference to MCAS."
"Relying on the materially false, inaccurate and incomplete information and representations that Forkner provided and caused Boeing to provide to the FAA AEG about MCAS, the FAA AEG deleted all reference to MCAS from the 737 Max FSB report," the indictment said.
Following the publication of the training report, Forkner emailed a copy to two U.S.-based airlines, the indictment said.
Forkner has been charged with two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts, each of which come with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and four counts of wire fraud, which each come with a maximum 20-year sentence.
"In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forker allegedly withheld critical information from regulators," Meacham said.
The plan was cleared for take off by the FAA in November of last year following a lengthy review and several changes to the jet by Boeing.
In January, the U.S. plane manufacturer agreed to pay the Justice Department more than $2.5 billion to settle charges related the two crashes and admitted that two of its technical pilots had deceived the FAA about the MCAS.