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A former Boeing test pilot has been indicted in connection with the 737 Max

Boeing 737 Max airplanes sit parked in a storage lot in April near Boeing Field in Seattle.
Ted S. Warren
Boeing 737 Max airplanes sit parked in a storage lot in April near Boeing Field in Seattle.

Updated October 15, 2021 at 10:08 AM ET

A federal grand jury has indicted a former chief technical pilot at Boeing, alleging that he deliberately deceived safety regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration as the agency evaluated and certified the troubled 737 Max airplane.

The indictment charged Mark Forkner, 49, with six counts of fraud, accusing him of providing the FAA with "false, inaccurate and incomplete information" about a new automated flight control system on the 737 Max.

That system, called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), is blamed in 737 Max plane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, which killed a total of 346 people.

Because of the information Forkner supplied the FAA, prosecutors say that MCAS wasn't mentioned in flight deck pilot manuals or pilot training materials.

The flawed MCAS system was quite powerful. In both deadly incidents, crash investigators say the MCAS activated erroneously based on faulty information from a single sensor, and repeatedly forced both planes into steep nose dives that the pilots could not recover from.

In internal company messages between Boeing employees, Forkner mocked FAA regulators and acknowledged deceiving them. After experiencing trouble controlling the plane in a session in a flight simulator, Forkner told a colleague that MCAS was "egregious" and "running rampant," but he didn't tell that to the FAA.

"So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)," Forkner wrote in the message, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors say Forkner's motive for the deception was to boost profits for Boeing, as they accuse him of "scheming to defraud Boeing's U.S.‑based airline customers to obtain tens of millions of dollars for Boeing."

"In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forkner allegedly withheld critical information from regulators," Chad Meacham, acting U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas, said in a statement. "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."

Boeing was trying to rush development of the 737 Max to compete with a new plane from Airbus, and one of the company's key selling points was that it would feel just like flying previous versions of the 737 and would not require pilot training in a flight simulator, which can be quite expensive for an airline. In fact, Boeing guaranteed Southwest Airlines a one million dollar refund per plane if its pilots ended up needing training in a flight simulator.

Back in January, Boeing avoided facing criminal charges itself by reaching a $2.5 billion settlement with the Justice Department. In the deferred prosecution agreement, the company acknowledges that certain employees, including Forkner, misled regulators about the safety of the 737 Max.

As part of the deal, Boeing agreed to pay a fine of about $244 million, nearly $1.8 billion in compensation to airlines that purchased the 737 Max, and $500 million for a fund to compensate families of those who died in the crashes. The settlement ended the criminal investigation into the company's actions.

Robert Clifford, the lead attorney for many of the families of the people who were killed in the 737 Max crashes, calls the indictment of Forkner "a corporate whitewash." Clifford says the "corporate greed goes far beyond the chief pilot" at Boeing and he is urging the justice department to go further in its criminal investigation.

Forkner is expected to make an initial appearance Friday in federal court in Fort Worth, TX. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the four counts of wire fraud, and up to 10 years in prison for each of two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce.

His attorney declined to comment ahead of the hearing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.

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