Boeing Blasts Release of Messages about Max Sim Session

 - October 21, 2019, 9:49 AM
Boeing 737 Max jets sit grounded at Boeing Field in Seattle. (Photo: Barry Ambrose)

Boeing on Sunday expressed understanding and “regret” over the concern caused by the release of an instant message chain involving a former Boeing employee suggesting he encountered serious problems with the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) in the 737 Max during simulator sessions. The employee, chief technical pilot Mark Forkner, described a scenario in which he witnessed the MCAS “running rampant” during a November 2016 simulator session, some four months before the Max received its certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. The revelation prompted harsh criticism of the FAA from House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Peter DeFazio for withholding “key” emails and records related to the instant messages between Forkner and technical pilot Patrik Gustavsson.

For its part, Boeing said it handed over the document containing the instant message exchange to the FAA and government investigators early this year, and that it regretted the “difficulties” its release caused the FAA and other regulators.

“It is unfortunate that this document, which was provided early this year to government investigators, could not be released in a manner that would have allowed for meaningful explanation,” said Boeing in a statement released Sunday. “While we have not been able to speak to Mr. Forkner directly about his understanding of the document, he has stated through his attorney that his comments reflected a reaction to a simulator program that was not functioning properly, and that was still undergoing testing.  We are continuing to investigate the circumstances of this exchange, and are committed to identifying all the available facts relating to it, and to sharing those facts with the appropriate investigating and regulatory authorities.”

In the instant message chain, Forkner expressed concern about the fact that the MCAS needed to activate at a much lower speed than previously expected and that he “lied [unknowingly]” to regulators about it.  

Boeing said that it informed the FAA about the expansion of the MCAS to low speeds during briefings “on multiple occasions” to the FAA and international regulators. The process, it added, also included evaluation of MCAS in low-speed configurations for both training and certification.

“The simulator software used during the November 15 session was still undergoing testing and qualification and had not been finalized, but it, too, provided for MCAS operation at low speed,” said Boeing. “Separately, a low-speed version of MCAS was installed on the airplanes used for training-related flight testing that the FAA administered in August 2016. And FAA personnel also observed the operation of MCAS in its low-speed configuration during certification flight testing, beginning in August 2016 and continuing through January 2017.”

The instant messages became public about a week after Boeing’s board of directors separated the roles of chairman and CEO and elected former GE Aircraft Engines chief executive David Calhoun to replace Dennis Muilenburg as non-executive chairman. On the same day, a panel of global aviation authorities issued a report critical of the FAA for its limited oversight of the MCAS design and Boeing for certain “pressures” exerted on employees involved in certification functions when making decisions on behalf of the FAA.

Muilenburg is scheduled to appear before the House transportation and infrastructure committee on October 30.