Former Boeing Pilot Indicted for Fraud in 737 Max Case

 - October 15, 2021, 8:45 AM
A Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 sits in storage in Moses Lake, Washington, in October 2019. (Photo: Barry Ambrose)

A federal grand jury in the Northern District of Texas returned an indictment late Thursday charging former Boeing chief technical pilot Mark Forkner with deceiving the FAA during the agency’s evaluation and certification of the Boeing 737 Max. Forkner, 49, allegedly deceived the FAA’s Aircraft Evaluation Group (AEG) by providing the agency with “materially false, inaccurate, and incomplete information” about the Max’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), leading to the omission of any reference to the flight control software in training manuals.

“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,” said assistant attorney general Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “In doing so, he deprived airlines and pilots from knowing crucial information about an important part of the airplane’s flight controls.”

According to the indictment, the deception deprived Boeing’s U.S.-based airline customers of important information when making and finalizing their decisions to pay Boeing tens of millions of dollars for 737 Max airplanes. 

“In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forkner allegedly withheld critical information from regulators,” said acting U.S. attorney Chad E. Meacham for the Northern District of Texas. “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. The Department of Justice will not tolerate fraud—especially in industries where the stakes are so high.”

Boeing began developing and marketing the 737 Max in June 2011. After determining the minimum level of training required for a pilot to transition from the 737NG to the Max, the FAA AEG published the 737 Max Flight Standardization Board (FSB) report, which included the AEG’s differences-training determination for the Max. Forkner led the 737 Max flight technical team and was responsible for providing the AEG with accurate and complete information for the FSB report.  

According to the indictment, in late 2016, Forkner discovered information about an important change to MCAS and withheld it. In an instant-message chain between Forkner and then technical pilot Patrik Gustavsson, the chief pilot 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 FAA. In one message, Forkner expressed concern about the fact that the MCAS needed to activate at a much slower speed than previously expected and that he “lied [unknowingly]” to regulators about it.  A subsequent email from Forkner called for removing any mention of the MCAS from the flight crew operating manual.

“Rather than sharing information about this change with the FAA AEG, Forkner allegedly intentionally withheld this information and deceived the FAA AEG about MCAS,” said the U.S. Justice Department in a statement. “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.”

Federal prosecutors have charged Forkner with two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce and four counts of wire fraud. Expected to make his initial court appearance on Friday in Fort Worth, Forkner faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison on each count of wire fraud and 10 years in prison on each count of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce.

Boeing and the FAA have declined to comment on the case.