Boeing Max Test Pilot Faces Indictment Alleging MCAS Deception

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Former Boeing test pilot Mark Forkner, 49, will be in court today (Oct. 15) in Dallas facing indictment on charges from the U.S. Department of Justice [DOJ] related to deceiving the FAA about the 737 Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). The MCAS is essentially a software suite designed to artificially render the Max’s handling qualities similar to those of previous models. The indictment alleges that Forkner withheld damning flight test information from FAA officials as part of an effort to speed certification of the Max, which was certified in 2017.

A pair of 737 Max jet crashes within five months of each other in late 2018 and early 2019 killed 346 people. MCAS anomalies were cited in both accidents, leading to worldwide grounding of the Max, which is just now beginning its return to service.

An October 2019 story in The Washington Post revealed a damning series of pre-certification internal social media messages from Forkner to colleagues and FAA officials revealing his concern over “egregious” changes to the MCAS flight parameters that he discovered in tests, on the one hand, and his plans to, nevertheless, be “jedi-mind tricking regulators” around the world to accept lower levels of training for Max line pilots. He wrote to one FAA official about removing any reference to MCAS from the pilots’ flight manuals: “Delete MCAS, recall we decided we weren’t going to cover it [because it is] way outside the normal operating envelope.”

The lead counsel of the law firm representing the families of passengers killed in one of the crashes responded to news of the charges. Robert Clifford, founder and senior partner of Clifford Law Offices, wrote in a statement yesterday: “The indictment today of Boeing’s former chief pilot for deceiving federal authorities about the 737 Max is a corporate whitewash … The tragic loss of 157 lives could have been prevented had Mark Forkner spoken up but he certainly didn’t act alone … I implore the DOJ to go further in its criminal investigation and indictments to determine just how far the deception went and who was at the bottom of it all.”

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30 COMMENTS

  1. “Corporate whitewash.” Indeed. Forkner is not the only person who knew about and was complicit in this sad chapter in Boeing’s history … as the law firm states. One could almost forgive the first crash as a learning point but — once it happened — the Chief pilot and others should have opened their yappers and been more overt into seeing that it didn’t happen again.

    I’d like to know what the Reliability engineers said about the single point failure mode standard configuration of the airplane’s AoA system. Beyond that … what the hell are we paying exorbitant salaries to FAA employees for … approving pieces of paper shoved in front of them by corporate entities who have economic incentives to oversimplify everything? Let a few FAA types fry, too! And while I’m at it … reassign the FAA types who “did” Martha Lunken to real day jobs keeping track of commercial aviation activities. I’m getting very tired of the adversarial relationship some FAA types have with GA while — at the same time — getting too chummy with commercial entities.

  2. The origin of the MCAS debacle stems from Boeing promising to pay Southwest $1 million penalty per airplane if model-specific training was required. The news summary above mentions various things related to that, but those are mostly driven by the penalty, which Boeing and Southwest should never have agreed upon because of the ramifications to safety. To put a fine point on this, the overall focus at Boeing was on avoiding a penalty, rather than the customary aerospace eng. design, certification, safety and brand image.

  3. Larry S has mis-identified the problem. The FAA has far too few engineers and they are paid below industry levels, so “… what the hell are we paying exorbitant salaries to FAA employees for …? merely adds to the problem. FAA does not have the computer hardware, software and IT staff to fully do the entire job. Corporations went to the handiest congressperson and swore to never again cheat like the last time. Boeing moved to Chicago partially to get the annoying engineers out of management offices (firewall to protect management). It worked. Now if management is not severely punished it will happen again in a few years with the next management “team”.

    If we continue to fail to identify our problems with government the Chinese will eventually surpass us, as Airbus has. The rot is at Wall Street and infects many corporations and politics. Destroying our government will not solve the problem.

    • Generally speaking, you’re correct.

      However, there are specifics that can be noted.

      One of the main reasons for the Boeing executives office move was to be closer to the Pentagon for military sales, which are lucrative because of cost overruns. US executives are allergic to non-monopoly industries, and Airbus has ruined (ie. introduced competitive bidding) Boeing’s monopoly on large civil airframes. Also, new plants are being located in anti-union states like the southeast, not the West Coast.

      The FAA delegates airliner QA to industry professionals working as in-house contractors at the mfgs. The valid reason is that FAA staffers are largely not airliner engineers, and cannot keep up with the state-of-the-art in that field. However, the contractors are pressured by mfgs., so there is a conflict of interest, as seen with MCAS. So FAA’s reliance on certification paperwork failed in the case of MCAS.

      Note that there have been major parts certification scandals over the years. The tag is more valuable than the part, so bogus parts have turned up everywhere, even in Air Force 1 and NASA rockets. So the more FAA relies only on paperwork, the more likely you get safety lapses.

      The FAA should have airliner expertise available to approve new mfg. techniques and technologies, like basically everything in the 787 (composites in both fuselage and wings, titanium fasteners, novel lightning-strike conduction in wings, lithium ion batteries, batteries without a battery box, etc.) I was an admirer of Boeing back in the day, but I personally plan to avoid both 737 MCAS and 787 models since there’s no reason to trust either, from the design to the smallest screw.

      The only good news for Boeing is that the CCP still can’t make an airliner (they buy half the parts from Boeing), but over the next decade there’s 2 options to achieve that: either buy Embraer, or partner with the Russians. Once the CCP can sell a reliable airliner, the Chinese airline market will be closed, and China will export (and finance) them, destroying Boeing’s civil business. Think Huawei, but in aviation.

  4. The Board at Boeing needs to get their collective heads out and restructure the management and the overall corporate “philosophy”. They have allowed Boeing to become a veritable laughing stock in the industry. A friend sent along an email containing and old piece about flying the 727 “back in the day”. The 727 was a “cast iron” airplane just like the 707 and all her siblings were. The crews and the public knew they were safe because it said Boeing on the dataplate. I flew the Classic 74 freighter for 16 years and was convinced that every time I put air under one that she would bring me home safely as long as I didn’t do something really stupid.
    Today, we have Boeing building plastic aircraft with a myriad of problem stemming from cost cutting and other measures from management focused on raising or keeping the stock price elevated. Cutting corners and staff on the production line may be good for the bottom line but it really sucks for the quality of work. The examples of this are the KC-46 FOD issues and the bad 787 fuselage mating issues. The MAX issues are an even worse example of the effect of having financial people in charge of anything. Okay, moving the engines was necessary. That, of course, changed the flight characteristics albeit way out in one of the coffin corners. So, rather than using the old Boeing practice of countering the problem with a well thought out and tested MCAS-type system, they tried to sneak in a really cheap fix without telling anyone about it. And, they tried to use that fix without any of the old Boeing redundancy and look where that got them.
    Now, I can’t be sure how much of the company “kool-aid” Mr. Forkner consumed but it sure looks like he was trying to help cover up the stupid actions of management. If the guy that is responsible for testing an aircraft is willing to lie to regulators and thus lie to other pilots about an aircraft, then I vote that he be hung… with a new rope!
    The point I am trying to make here is that the Boeing Board of Directors needs to take a hard look in the mirror and get about replacing the top management there with operators and engineers. Sure, those two will clash, routinely, but both are dedicated to putting out a top quality, reliable product. The financial toads, while very necessary to any organization, need to be relegated back to the off-shoot side line in the organizational chart from which they came.
    End rant. 🙂

  5. Another interesting point I will share: the largest “user” of Boeing 737 aircraft at the time the 737 MAX decisions were made at Boeing was United Airlines, but they acquired their fleet mostly as used aircraft. Southwest has always been Boeing’s largest 737 actual customer. Guess who was “whispering in Boeing’s ear”.

  6. I will only add one further point to all of the excellent ones that have already been made.
    The MCAS system was federated, rather than integrated. Hence it did not automatically
    adjust itself to new conditions during flight, but required pilots and crew members to do
    the job serially (manually), step-by-step. As if that weren’t bad enough, pilots weren’t
    told about it beforehand, let alone given any training, or even a manual to consult, lest it
    become apparent that the I-Max was a brand-new plane, not merely a variant of the 737.
    Boeing was desperate to avoid incurring extra expenses, filing fees, and above all, delays
    in getting the I-Max into production, to compete with the Airbus and other manufacturers.
    So they cut corners, both to save time and money and to avoid detection. As a result,
    those in the cockpit were at a loss to understand what was going on (and going wrong),
    much less why. The more they tried to compensate for a change (or an apparent error)
    in one place, the more hazards they unwittingly created in another, believing that the
    rest of the system was programmed to correct itself, be it the angle of attack, the pitch
    of the nose, or half a dozen other variables (readings on the instrument panel). Even
    a Jedi knight would not be able to cope with that! Call it “information under uncertainty”
    (Kahneman & Tversky), GIGO (garbage in, garbage out), or by any name you please,
    but the underlying problem is the same: when your premises are false, the conclusions
    you draw from them are likely to be false, even when they follow from those premises–
    in fact, precisely because they do follow, but have lost relevance to the actual situation.
    Thus ignorance makes fools of us all–with fatal consequences, for everyone onboard.
    What Boeing did was unconscionable; but then, they have a long history of doing that,
    and of getting away with it (not being held accountable). The following publications
    deal with their unenviable track record, and what it has cost the company over the
    years, without changing their attitude, their behavior, or their status as part of the
    military-industrial juggernaut: John Newhouse, Boeing vs. Airbus: The Inside Story
    of the Greatest International Competition in Business (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007);
    Philip K. Lawrence and David Weldon Thornton, Deep Stall: The turbulent history of Boeing
    commercial airplanes (London: Routledge, 2016); Edward L. Greenberg, Leon Grunberg,
    Sarah Moore and Patricia B. Sikora, Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers
    and Managers (New Haven: Yale U., 2010), Dana L. Cloud, We Are the Union: Democratic
    Unionism and Dissent at Boeing (Urbana, IL: U. of Illinois, 2011); and my essay, ‘The Rise
    and Fall of Boeing” (unpubl., 2020). Boeing is still running from its internal problems, but
    it can’t hide, much less escape. Sooner or later, what it is doing to itself and the public
    will reap the whirlwind–but not until they learn that lack of all integrity simply won’t fly.

  7. Read Philip Carey’s testimony before the House Subcommittee on Aviation (June 19, 2019).
    Mr. Carey is the head of the Allied Pilots Assoc. You may find it enlightening. For your
    convenience, follow the link below. There were also numerous follow-up stories in the
    aviation journals, of which I chose one as representative. The link to that is also below.

    https://transportation.house.gov/imo/media/doc/CA%20Carey%20Hearing%20testimony%20.pdf

    https://travelandaviation.com/boeing-737-10-processes-to-undergo-revision-after-easas-max-scrutiny-news/

    If there is any “good stuff,” Boeing must be keeping it in a vault, perhaps on an off-shore island,
    or else in a private account at a major bank in Zurich. It’s unlikely that they will get a taste of
    their own medicine, but since you seem to have ample leisure time, you might wish to spend it
    studying the literature, and acquainting yourself with Boeing’s history of corporate malpractice.
    This is not to say that other manufacturers have been saints. But Boeing has been especially
    egregious, in part because of their dominance within the industry, in part because of their cozy
    relationship with the Pentagon, and their ability to “wine and dine” members of Congress whose
    oversight might cause them problems. As for the aircraft itself, yes, it’s hard to believe that the
    I-Max had a primitive computer system that in some respects was no better than an abacus–or
    any faster than a 12″ slide rule. Unfortunately, that was the case. And you can put that in your
    B-52 napalm bomb bay, but whatever you do, don’t drop it.

  8. Interesting that most of the comments assume that the government’s narrative and position on Forkner’s statements and actions are correct/factual. His internal social media comments could well be first impressions that, after further consideration, review, and discussion, he did not view the MCAS changes as “egregious”. We don’t know the context or timing of them. And, therefore, his later representations to the FAA could be reasonable and reflect the company position on the MCAS. All that is public at this point is the government’s story of guilt/culpability. Given how skeptical the AvWeb commentariat is typically, I’m a little disappointed everyone is simply accepting the prosecutor’s narrative.

    • Here’s what IS known … Forkner DID know that MCAS could take command of the airplane in some flight situations and did not make that known to users for reasons already discussed by others. That — in and as of itself — is reason to hold him responsible as the principal test pilot. The buck stops somewhere … if not at HIS desk … then who? He’s not singularly guilty but he could have changed the outcome had he merely insisted in making the system’s existence known.

      I talked to an airport cohort who was a 737 Captain / Check Airman for UAL. He told me that he was given computer based difference training in the airplane about nine months prior to his first flight as a MCAS Captain. He said he could go from model to model in the UAL fleet without issue but that when he got into the MCAS airplane, things were in substantially different places and he had to search for controls. He said that “he did not feel comfy” with the thing. THAT says a lot. If the crews of the two accident airplanes also felt that way (?), it might explain a lot of why a normal line crew might have a problem when a system they didn’t know about took over. That said, the second crew DID Know about it and still lost control.

      • Forkner certainly did know a lot … he is charged with fraud involving aircraft parts and wire fraud. Both require that the government demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that he “knowingly and with intent to defraud” made statements to the FAA and/or others about MCAS. This is the key part.

      • “That said, the second crew DID Know about it and still lost control.”

        The second crew did know and followed the procedure in the book – namely pulling the breaker per the runaway trim procedure then trying to trim via the manual trim wheel. That didn’t work because the combination of their speed and the fact MCAS had applied full down trim would have required super-human strength on the manual trim wheel to re-trim. Due to the excessive nose-down trim they had no choice but to try to turn back on electric trim in the hope it would work correctly long enough they could trim then pull the breaker. Of course that didn’t work.

        For reference: https://www.flightglobal.com/safety/simulator-tests-demonstrate-737-max-manual-trim-difficulties/137651.article

        I suspect but haven’t seen anyone say that even if the first crew HAD followed the procedure to pull the electric trim breaker the same thing would still have happened to them.

        I have to wonder whether if Boeing took some time off from blaming the first crew and airline maintenance staff and actually tried in a simulator or even just had some engineers and pilots brainstorm they could not have seen the flaw in their procedure.

  9. “The tragic loss of 157 lives could have been prevented had Mark Forkner spoken up but he certainly didn’t act alone … I implore the DOJ to go further in its criminal investigation and indictments to determine just how far the deception went and who was at the bottom of it all.”

    Keep imploring. But I doubt anything will change. I suspect that Boeing still has some political capital left over from the TWA 800 “Exploding Fuel Tank” cover up. And the federal govt isn’t anxious for that truth to come out either. (Remember the FBI guy preventing the NTSB guy from doing his job?)

  10. The pilot for UAL wasn’t the only one who “wasn’t comfy” with the I-MAX. Neither was Capt. Sullenberger,
    who testified before the House Subcommittee on Aviation (the hearings were televised, as well). Sully told
    members of Congress and others who were present at the hearing that he had test-flown an I-MAX the day
    before, and that even during the short time that it took to fly from Boeing’s test facility in Everett to a lake
    a few miles away and then circle back to the hangar, he had a lot of trouble controlling the aircraft and felt
    that it might crash (I am paraphrasing, but those were nearly his exact words). He invited any members
    of Congress who were interested in pursuing the matter further to join him the next day for another test-
    flight. (There were no volunteers). He also recommended that (a) pilots be given more training in how
    to operate the 737 I-MAX, including a manual, hands-on instruction, etc. (b) Boeing should fix whatever
    was wrong with the aircraft before requesting (re)certification, let alone, resuming passenger service.
    His testimony followed that of Philip Carey, and took about 6 minutes. It was greeted with astonished
    silence. No one raised any objections or asked Sully any questions, but the atmosphere in the room
    during his prepared remarks was noticeably tense, even while watching it on TV. After he finished,
    it became apparent that what he had said was irrefutable, and no one dared to challenge his authority.
    One does not need to rely on gossip, hearsay, or word of mouth in order to have the evidence that is
    required to assess this case. It is all in the public record. I urge everyone to become familiar with it.

      • It refers to the fact that the MCAS units only had one sensor for detecting
        changes in the angle of attack, even though the plane itself had two. Hence
        the pilot and crew could only adjust the elevator to control pitch, but not the
        trim tab that responds to aerodynamic forces outside the aircraft. The “I” is
        a Roman numeral, not a letter of the alphabet. I (the author of this note) do
        not recall where I first saw this designation in print, but I adopted it when it
        reappeared a sufficient number of times thereafter. I do apologize for not
        clarifying it earlier. It was one of the many things that made the MCAS a
        nuisance at best, and a hazard at worst. Instead of simplifying the tasks
        to be performed, it made them more complicated, while misleading pilots
        into thinking that an instrument reading meant one thing, when in fact it
        meant another. The more that they tried to correct what (they thought)
        was wrong, the more they inadvertently aggravated and multiplied the
        problems that arose, until (inexplicably) all the cockpit alarms went off.
        By then they were at a loss to account for the whole situation, let alone
        remedy it. As the nose of the plane heaved up and down, then lurched
        out of control, the aircraft fatally breached its limits. There were many
        shortcomings in the MCAS design, of which “No. I” was by far the worst.
        Yet ultimately, the fault lay not in the computer, but in the culture of
        Boeing–an aviation ‘institution’ whose mad inmates run the asylum.

        • I worked supporting flight test of military airplanes for 34 years both in uniform and after. At the end, working on a major USAF system as a contractor employee on avionics systems (for a different Company), we had to brief the VP of engineering every other week. If we stood up before him and described the above single failure mode situation, we’da been fired on the spot. THAT is the difference in ‘culture’ these days at Boeing. There’s no doubt in my mind that someone down in the trenches brought this problem up but was told to shut up. THAT is why I hold the chief technical pilot SO culpable and am SO vocal about it.