Criminal Charges Coming For MAX Chief Technical Pilot


Boeing’s former chief technical pilot on the 737 MAX is expected to be indicted on criminal charges in the next few days. The Wall Street Journal first reported Thursday that Mark Forkner, who left Boeing about two years ago, is expected to be indicted in the next few days to face allegations that he misled FAA officials on the significance of the addition of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) to the MAX.  MCAS, which adjusts the angle of the horizontal stabilizer to change the pitch of the aircraft, was installed to compensate for aerodynamic differences between the MAX and earlier generation 737s. It was designed to operate in the background without pilot input and was cited in two fatal crashes involving the MAX.

According to the Seattle Times, part of the Deferred Prosecution Agreement between Boeing and the FAA called out Forkner and his deputy chief pilot for allegedly misrepresenting the significance of the addition of the MCAS while exonerating senior brass. The Times says Forkner will likely argue that he was under intense pressure from above to convince the FAA that the MAX was so similar to the earlier 737s that minimal type training would be required, thus saving potential customers millions in training costs. In the two crashes, MCAS overpowered flight crews after getting erroneous data from angle of attack indicators and put the aircraft, one operated by Lion Air and the second by Ethiopian Airlines, into unrecoverable high-speed dives.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Though every indication is that the very top of Boeing was complicit in MAX decisions, it is a minion that has to fall on the sword. What is Boeings successes to date:
    Max 737 – Crashes an production held for over two years
    Boeing Starliner – software issues delay a un-crewed test for almost a year then when they try again they have mechanical issues that push it back another year.
    KC Tanker – Parts found in wing tanks and other issues
    787 – Cracks in fuselage
    777 – Something (I forget the details)

    At this point it truly should the CEO and top executives that should be held for trial for the MAX and the absolute blundering in managing the company.

    • I agree that the FAA and Boeing are compartmentalizing the blame onto them.

      I can guarantee that Forkner wasn’t the person who promised Southwest a $1 million rebate for every MAX if retraining was required. Even Southwest should have known that a perverse incentive like that eroded safety.

      • That was the engine, of a particular model, not made by Boeing.

        Whereas 777X has been a subject of tough discussion with FAA.

    • And also the Board of Directors. At a minimum, the records and any recordings of their board meetings should be subpoenaed to find out what they knew about the MAX, and when.

  2. Not only should this guy go down, but all Boeing executives and FAA persons involved in the certification process.

    They are all guilty with blood dripping from their fingers.

  3. So, how is an MCAS failure any difference from a horizontal trim runaway.? 2 US pilots had the mcas fail and they both we able to correctly disconnect the trim system and manually trimmed the aircraft.

    Boeing’s big failure was in having 2 aoa sensors and using only one to feed the system, vs the 3 that airbus uses , and all 3 input the aoa data, so that if one fails it is overruled by the other 2.

    • Exactly. While Boeing has blame, so do the pilots. An MCAS failure manifests as a runaway trim. If you’re proficient in runaway trim, an MCAS failure should not be a problem. Also, some say the reactivation of the trim cutoff switches after they were turned off was because there was too much friction in the control system with the trim so out of whack to manually reduce the trim and they were trying to get the electric trim working again. However, that’s another issue altogether. Someone, Boeing or the airlines, took out the procedure to relax the controls to unload the controls to reduce friction so you could get some manual trim in. Wash, rinse, repeat. But anyone who has experience with small planes knows this either through student training or, like me, goofing up and having to deal with an airplane way out of trim at the worst time because I forgot to take nose-up trim out on a touch-and-go. Finally, with the consequences of runaway trim being so high, I don’t know why the procedure is 1) disconnect autothrottles – observe 2) disconnect autopilot – observe 3) trim cutoff switches — OFF. I’d be going right for #3. It reminds me of the Payne Stewart crash where in the Loss of Pressurization procedure on step 243 was DON OXYGEN MASKS. That should have been the 1st step and also the first boldface item.

      • The procedure was supposed to treat it as a runaway trim. But how often does runaway trim happen on climb-out? It seems that if you had a runaway electric trim nose down early in the flight there may be a good chance that it might not be caught before you get into the situation where manual trim is nearly impossible to do. Imagine runaway nose down trim at 1000′, or 500′, seems that would be very hairy.

    • Firstly, the pilots know about runaway stabilizer trim – there is training and/or written procedures.

      They did not now about MCAS, when the stabilizer was doing unexpected things some pilots mis-diagnosed the situation.

      On the flight prior to the fatal Lion Air one a pilot in the jump seat diagnosed what was happening though did not now why, so advised the flying pilot to turn off the stabilizer trim. Sadly, on the next flight poor crew coordination in switching roles left the F/O confused and not taking the correct approach.

      The pilots of the fatal Ethiopian flight knew of MCAS but somehow got confused and/or simply ran out of time (the airplane was moving fast and close to the ground, out of that hot and high airport).

  4. The FAA “engineers” who signed off on the thing are just as complicit as any Boeing employees but — of course and as usual — nobody is talking about them. You wouldn’t have to be a first year avionics type to know that — as Jim H already said — having a single AOA probe feeding the system unless you paid extra is a single point failure mode. The FAA didn’t see that? What are we paying those people for … signatures and glad handing??

      • In this case, it’s not even the FAA that should get the blame, but rather Congress who directed the FAA to expand their DER program. The FAA was dependent upon Boeing accurately representing their engineering decisions. Given how it was structured, the FAA had no reason to suspect that MCAS was anything other than a minor system.

        • While FAA depended on delegates in the form of ODA – not DERS which is a different system – it oversees and decides on big questions.

          FAA were sleeping too.

          • OH! You mean the same FAA that is telling us it’ll take four years to for a LODA resolution for a problem THEY created? At every level of our Government these days, we are seeing incompetence along with a failure to punish same with anything but a pay raise while working from home in their underwear while still wielding brute power over aviation.

    • This seems to be an important point to me as well. If the government regulators are going to accept the word of companies, then why do we have the regulators? There must be some dereliction at some point in the system at the FAA unless the evidence of fraud is more serious than a lie. Like the VW emissions scandal where the cars were programmed to run differently when under the test conditions.

      • Because there will never be enough government regulators. You have to use something like an ISO 9001 system, in this case company DERs, to get the job done. Then you have periodic evaluations of how it’s working, just like ISO9001. If they fail, you remove the authorities. If the government doesn’t have enough bodies to cover, then I guess you go out of business. The problem is Boeing is too big to fail because of industry consolidation. So the incentives are perverse.

      • You do not understand the system, FAA are not ignoring.

        In this case FAA apparently were not informed enough about MCAS if at all, its inexperienced overworked personnel missed the hazard

    • …. The FAA “engineers” who signed off on the thing are just as complicit as any Boeing employees ….

      More so. The Buck stops with the FFA and, as usual when disaster strikes, turns out that elevator-trailing-edge-wick FAA guys are overseeing leading-edge Boeing engineers and test pilots. In the end, though, Lion’s and Ethiopian’s “pilots” forgot: “First fly the aeroplane.” Assuming – big stretch, this one – any of them knew how.

  5. This plane went against all engineering protocols. A system that wasn’t in the manual, one that wasn’t redundant, one that had no indication it was working, one with no malfunction warnings and finally no emergency procedures. When Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas and allowed those people to infiltrate management that was the start of the issues. The bean counters took over and pushed the airplane builders to the side. There is fundamentally nothing wrong with the max but to save a few bucks and to market the plane Boeing ignored all the good engineering practices that made them what they were.

  6. “Misleading the FAA?” What statute is that?
    I remain a fan if Boeing products overall
    Commercial pilots are supposed to be able to recognize and respond to a runaway trim situation without having to learn to pronounce the big words engineers came up with to describe the defective widget causing it.

    Little attention seems to be paid to date of the consequences of untimely intervention in the 737, and likely most transport category aircraft. Once the stab moves to a certain AND setting, neither the electric or human are strong enough to more it absent a hard push-over to unload the tail.

    I’m a retired piston driver. Any of our type rated friends out there care to chime in?

    • Nonetheless the idea that ‘lying to the FAA’ could be analogous to ‘lying to the FBI’ is as chilling to me as any of Boeing’s blunders

    • Martin,
      Completely agree. I am a current 73 CA and fly the 800-NG as well as the Max. Both great airplanes. It is a very popular consensus that Boeing leadership should be marched to the gallows. While it’s an emotionally satisfying idea to many, there is no logic to it. Exactly how is Boeing responsible for accidents in which both flight crews failed to comply with an emergency checklist? And not just any checklist, a memory item checklist! Stab trim runaways have been trained since the first airplanes built with movable stabs. The “new” 73 trim runaway checklist created after the accidents is essentially identical to the old trim runaway checklist. I have no doubt that the internet mob will now target me for criticism for saying that the blame doesn’t belong to some executive in an office. The blame lies squarely and only on the pilots who failed to fulfill their responsibilities as professional pilots. Greg

      • Greg,
        Totally agree, and good comment.
        However, Boeing should have put this in the manual and should have been discussed, but certainly NOT criminal.
        Too many folks are NOT taking responsibility for their actions.
        (PS off topic: Make the sign in easier, and take you back to where you left off…. irritating).

        Retired 73 pilot.

        • Larryo,
          I agree. Boeing should have put a description of MCAS in the Max FOM. However, it would have made no difference in the outcome of either accident. Congrats on retirement! Cheers, Greg

          • Mmm, might have helped the Lion Air crew. Ethiopian crew new from advisories/publicity but somehow did not handle it before time ran out (moving fast at low altitude out of the hot high airport).

    • Uh, depends in substantial part on what the role of the accused person was – expectations much higher for a person who has delegated authority from FAA (via the ODA).

      Even if not, big trouble for Boeing for not telling FAA.

      • Keith,
        I’m going to have to respectfully stand by my statement. Both crews exhibited gross lack of systems knowledge and basic airmanship. First, Both crews had stick shaker activation at rotation and yet both crews retracted the flaps. WTH? If the airplane may be stalling, the LAST thing you would ever do is retract the flaps. With flaps extended MCAS will not activate. Secondly, numerous systems other than MCAS can cause a trim runaway (STS, or autopilot for example) and there is really no way to determine which system is causing the runaway. More importantly, it doesn’t matter. The response is the same- deactivate the trim system and trim manually. The response is not only a checklist item, but it is a MEMORY item. The first crew never accomplished this and the second crew did it too late. Yes, in the Ethiopian accident the airspeed was very high, because the engines were at TOGA during the entire event! They weren’t flying the airplane, they were just along for the ride after the airplane broke ground. The captain of the Lion Air flight figured out that he could just counter the MCAS activations by simply trimming the opposite direct each time MCAS activated. He did this 22 times! It was obvious he didn’t understand why the airplane kept trimming nose down, but he had it under control. Then gave the airplane to the FO WITHOUT SAYING ANYTHING ABOUT THING TRIM RUNNING AND! The kid made 1 insufficient ANU trim input and it was all over. Gross incompetence all around. Cheers, greg

  7. Can everyone repeat after me: Fall guy?
    There is no way that all the top brass at Boeing should walk away from this with “clean” hands. The issues with Boeing have been steady since the “financial” folks wiggled their slimy way into the top seat. Financial people are and should remain sidebar positions. Operators and engineers should be the management. The advice and oversight of the finance folks is necessary but they have absolutely no experience in getting the job done and done right. Boeing’s long held reputation for producing a solid, safe, productive product is shot. Why one might ask? Because the focus at Boeing over the past several years has been to do more with less and faster. The 737 issues are just the tip of the iceberg. Reducing production and engineering staff while trying to keep the production rate up has resulted in a dramatic drop in quality. That’s what happens when “finance” people are in charge because all they look at is the stock price and it’s affect on stockholders. Now, their efforts have killed people and eroded faith in Boeing’s 737, 787, 777, and KC-46 products. How much more is it going to take to either get the Board off it’s fanny or put the company under?

    • The finance gurus have infected everything. It’s like the medieval church. They influence, through personal connections and pseudo religious signals, what companies will get the backing of the holy capital, NYC. They do have too much power.

      That being said, Boeing has become a state industry. It’s about as socialized as it can get. It’s beyond too big to fail. Seems to me the US owned the business when it had multiple builders. It’s only a correlation, but it seems there is something to it.

      • Error.

        Some financial people are very good, they think long term, they are honest.

        (People tinged with Marxism’s denial of the mind assume they don’t exist.)

        Read history:
        – Bill Boeing was a financial person
        – Bill Allen was a lawyer
        They did well by Boeing.

  8. In my opinion its very unlikely a chief technical pilot would mislead the regulators over a design feature.As well in my opinion its unlikely anything “from above”would put “intense pressure”on a chief
    pilot for a change of design feature that needed a few dollars of extra training to get used to.As Ghandi would say,The customer is right,in this case the customer want their planes flying with paying pax,so the manufacturer would be doing everything in their ability to keep them in the air.

    • Uh, cost of differences training was considered a big deal.

      As for misleading FAA, at one point the accused told a colleague that he inadvertently told the FAA the wrong thing. Question is whether or not he then told them so.

  9. Lots of failures all the way around. However, it appears to me that somebody is out to get Boeing any way they can to cover up their own complicit behavior. With all of this, one has to look at the bigger picture. That is government institutional failures all the way across the board. Look at the number of government institutions that are no longer performing the tasks for which they were created in the first place. As a footnote to all of this, how many MAX crashes have occurred in the U.S. or with U.S. carriers? None, to my knowledge.

    • Funny you should bring up “government institutional failure all the way across the board,” Owen.

      I summer up north near Oshkosh and pay the US Postal Svc dearly for something they call “Premium Forwarding of my weekly mail” I’ve been doing this for 16 years. Each year, I suffer 3 or 4 major losses of the package of mail. THIS year / week takes the cake … my mail didn’t show up so I had to call to get a tracking number; from it I found out they sent my mail to Puerto Rico instead of Wisconsin. This equates to an error rate greater than 10% … meanwhile, the postal rates are going up. Talking to my contact person in FL, he makes no bones about the USPS being all hosed up. They’re not even denying it. He forgot to blame Trump, tho. OH! Did I mention they’re not doing too good over at the drone targeting office in Afghanistan? I’m sure each of us could bring up like problems with Gov’t agencies. Time for the USPS to be replaced by UPS or FedEx! Who’s on first … ??

      In THIS 737 case, there are a lot of dirty players but … Jim H — below — nails it.

    • Best comment on the subject! (two thumbs up!)

      The Chief and assistant Chief test pilots are being thrown under the bus. Never mind that other test pilots had the same observations (as opposed to concerns). Never mind that they DID pass their observations along–to other test pilots–to management–to engineering–they DIDN’T remain silent.

      If THESE pilots are “guilty”–then everyone else above them are ALSO complicit. No mention of the FAA test pilots that ACTUALLY SIGNED OFF ON THE SYSTEM–why not prosecute THEM as well? Apparently, THEY didn’t see a problem, either. Finally–Owen is right–if there was a problem, why didn’t it manifest itself in the United States–where most of the testing and most of the aircraft were located?

  10. “ According to the Seattle Times, part of the Deferred Prosecution Agreement between Boeing and the FAA called out Forkner and his deputy chief pilot for allegedly misrepresenting the significance of the addition of the MCAS while exonerating senior brass. ”

    The deal is already made between all parties. It’s just a matter of getting through the legal system from this point forward. All of those will “pay” has already been pre-determined. All those who will get a “pass” have been also been pre-determined. Typical modern business “justice”…aka…Let’s Make a Deal.

      • Ask Boeing, the FAA, Forkner, or the people on the Deferred Prosecution Agreement. They already know. Plea agreements are made all the time well in the advance of a story/news/press release. All of the potential fall out scenarios has been discussed. This particular story will just fade away. And I am confident Mr. Forkner will continue to fly.

  11. I see bits of truth in all of the above comments. Please consider though that “Management” is the process of getting a job done through others. That said in truth, Management must rely on the CTP to get the job done! IF he succumbed to pressure from others, then shame on him for NOT doing his job (he could have always retired and then gone public with the hanky-panky going on within Boeing and/or the FAA). IF he were ignorant of the real issues then shame on him for NOT knowing the details. Yes, MANY others have to be complicit, but when the “S___ hits the fan”, some ONE (as a minimum) must be held accountable! In this case, the CTP is the “sacrificial lamb”.

  12. No one has brought up that they’re calling the charges “criminal.” IF he’s convicted, he becomes a felon. Are they for real here ??? That’s a mighty strong accusation, isn’t it ?? As Yars says, the ‘things NOT seen” here are gonna be that no one will want to be a Chief Technical pilot at Boeing … making things worse.

    • I’d expect ‘criminal’ to be deliberately saying something was safe, or lying in response to question.

      Is either the case here?

  13. Everyone is making good points. I think Boeing is too big and needs to be broken up into smaller companies. In the corporate world bigger rarely translates into a better run company. In the past twenty years Boeing has bought out their domestic competition and has taken over so many other businesses I doubt that most of their stockholders even know what businesses Boeing is trying to operate. Big corporations don’t take pride in their products anymore, they take pride in their stock price and dividends. When companies prioritize stock buybacks over improving their products the “products” usually suffer. Boeing is a prime example of this.

    • Why do you assume ‘big’ is bad?

      Depends on values taught, led, and enforced in the organization. Search for ‘culture’ to see a sound set of values.

      (BBandT avoided some of the government’s mortgage fiasco because it took the view that what is not good for customers is not good for the bank. BBandT is ‘big’, grew substantially with that philosophy. BBandT did not need bailout money.)

  14. This is the part that looks really greasy:

    “The case was brought by the then U.S. Attorney in the northern district of Texas, Erin Nealy Cox.
    Cox left the Department of Justice after the agreement and in June joined Kirkland & Ellis, Boeing’s lead corporate criminal defense law firm. On Kirkland’s website, she was welcomed to the firm as a partner by Mark Filip, who had signed the Deferred Prosecution Agreement on behalf of Boeing.”

    So the US Attorney that initially goes after Boeing instead crafts a sweetheart deal where all the Boeing execs are exonerated, then lands a job as a partner at Boeing’s main law firm. And was welcomed by the same Boeing lawyer who signed the sweetheart deal!

    Tell me why this doesn’t stink to high Heaven?

    • You’re right, it truly stinks, but I’ll be very surprised if anyone who has the power to address it will choose to do so.

  15. “Deferred Prosecution Agreement” – that suggests an outcome has been prearranged which will feature some knuckle-rapping, deflection, and “Nothing to see here, folks, just keep it moving…” I’m sure there will be some courtroom theatrics with the chief technical pilot playing a role similar to the mob underling who takes the rap for Da Boss. With the understanding that he’ll be well taken care of for his loyalty. If this case should happen to get to CourtTV it should be in line for an Emmy nomination in the “Best Dramatic Performance” category.

    • Read up on the actual law, which does vary by fiefdom.

      The general thrust of it is that government will stay prosecuting IF:
      – accused pays reparations and/or a fine
      – behaves through a probationary period (of a few years I suppose)

      Common criteria used by prosecutors include self-disclosure (big points for that).

      Canadians voting today might have been influenced by political fight involving SNC-Lavalin company, which did not self-disclose, and in any case was not eligible because the Canadian version of the law excludes entities accused of bribing foreign officials. Allegations were Prime Minister pressured Attorney General to give the company deferred prosecution, his game was preserving jobs in or near his riding – a fallacy as others would pick up worthwhile assets and employ good people after bankruptcy.

      I think individuals can be treated with the process, Idaho or thereabouts gave deferred prosecution to the founder of a charity building schools for girls in poor countries. He was very sloppy with the organization’s funds, and some ended up in his pocket.

  16. There’s a fundamental fallacy in the statement that MCAS would only activate in [rare] circumstances – it is there for the rare circumstance that a pilot might pitch up too quickly when approaching stall, because rate of change of control force decreased near stall, thus stall the airplane.

    MCAS was Boeing’s approach to meeting the regulation addressing that, whereas earlier the 767 team designed a triplex system to take control but did not implement it because a few vortex generators sufficed. In contrast, if I understand correctly, as MAX was refined and tested the need became greater so MCAS was made more aggressive – that changed its safety. (The KC-46A has a similar system to help pilots as CofG shifts substantially and quickly with fuel offload, but it was kept mild.)

    • I have seen frequent references to “regulation required the control feel to be the same”, but my understanding is that is a simplification. From what I know of the MAX and MCAS, MCAS became “required” so as not to require any simulator differences training between the NG and the MAX. “Control feel” in this case only means “nearly-identical control feel to the NG”. My understanding is also that Boeing wanted all references to MCAS removed because they wanted to downplay the importance of the system to be something so minor that it didn’t require any regulatory oversight. If MCAS never existed on the MAX, my understanding is that would be perfectly fine EXCEPT that it would require simulator differences training.

      Boeing management set themselves up for failure with how the MAX was handled. Both in the decisions they made to pressure employees to ensure no simulator training was required, and in their failure to define a culture where any one employee could say “stop, we need to evaluate this further”. IMO, the safety culture at Boeing has degraded in the same way it degraded at NASA over the Challenger explosion. When management decisions take precedent over engineering decisions, no one wins in the end.

      • You are confusing things.

        There is an FAA regulation on change in control forces, ‘feel’, approaching stall. That is well known, the 767 was Boeing’s first airliner to face that regulation, a triplex push system was designed but when flight testing showed only a small effect vortex generators were installed on the wings instead.

        The regulation does not require feel to be the same as another model, only that it does not become lighter approaching stall.

        MCAS does not change ‘feel’ – it takes control via stabilizer trim to avoid a pilot stalling the airplane if s/he pulled too hard in the face of diminishing resistance of controls.

        Boeing wanted to avoid training, so minimized talking about the CAS system. But that scheme failed to recognize that the design of MCAS had morphed to be so aggressive that stabilizer could be moved so far that pilots could not overcome its force with elevator deflection.

        Bjorn Fehrm, Satcom Guru, and others have explained that ad nauseum.

        The original B707 had a control column nudger for acceptance in Britain, and the KC-46A has an MCAS system, neither is aggressive.

  17. Too much typical Internet flapping in this thread – by people who do not understand law, do not understand the regulation that fomented MCAS, do not understand what MCAS is.

  18. Well, Keith, I just counted (I had to borrow some fingers) … 14 of 53 comments here are by YOU! That’s over 25%. So if anyone is burning up the ether in this thread, I’d say it was you. Since you’re an expert on “law, Regulation and MCAS,” why don’t you do another long comment and school all of us Neanderthals on all things we don’t ‘understand’. Thanks in advance.

    OH BTW … have you flown the MAX airplane or any 737 ? What is the basis for your expertise?

    Probably time for Russ to shut down the comments here ?

  19. There’s more here than just MCAS. This guy deserves a little jail time. There are plenty of other people in the organization that should join him there too.

    Pressed by the Justice Department, Boeing turned over a series of emails and shocking instant message exchanges between Forkner and his deputy, Patrik Gustavsson, in which Forkner bragged about how he had “jedi mind tricked” airlines into choosing the minimum pilot training option — and so avoided the need for extensive training of pilots on full flight simulators that would make the MAX a more expensive and less competitive airplane.

    To pull that off, Forkner persuaded the FAA in March 2016 to omit any description of MCAS from the pilot manuals, arguing that it would activate only in extreme circumstances — as he said in an email, “WAY outside” normal flying conditions.

    Forkner actively worked to the same end with regulators around the world, whom he disparaged in private messages as “fools” and “idiots.”

    Tragically, Forkner even dissuaded Lion Air officials who wanted to train their pilots on MAX simulators that this was “a difficult and unnecessary training burden for your airline.”

    He mocked the Indonesian airline representatives for their “stupidity” in asking for such training and boasted that his efforts to dissuade them had saved Boeing “a sick amount of $$$$.”