A Boeing pilot who took part in testing the 737 Max jetline was charged on Thursday by a federal jury on charges of deceiving security regulators who were evaluating the plane, which was later involved in two fatal crashes.
The indictment accuses Mark A. Forkner of giving the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) false and incomplete information about an automated air traffic control system that played a role in the crashes, which killed 346 people.
Prosecutors said that because of Forkner’s “alleged fraud,” the system was not mentioned in important FAA documents, pilot manuals or pilot training materials provided to airlines.
The air traffic control system automatically pressed its nose down on Max jets that crashed in 2018 in Indonesia and 2019 in Ethiopia. The pilots tried unsuccessfully to regain control, but both planes went into the handkerchief minutes after takeoff. Most pilots were not aware of the system, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, until after the first crash.
Forkner, 49, was charged with two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate trade and four counts of wire fraud. Federal prosecutors said he is expected to make his first appearance in court on Friday in Fort Worth, Texas. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to 100 years in prison.
“Sensitive” choices threatened the public, leaving pilots in the lurch
Boeing designed the Max to be a more fuel-efficient version of the venerable 737 that could compete with a plane developed by European rival Airbus. The flight control system was intended to make Max fly as before 737, despite the fact that the nose tends to tilt upwards under certain circumstances.
Congressional investigators have suggested that Forkner and Boeing reduce the power of the system to avoid requiring pilots to undergo extensive and expensive retraining, which would increase the airline’s costs of operating the plane.
Chad Meacham, acting U.S. attorney for the North District of Texas, said Forkner was trying to save Boeing money by withholding “critical information” from regulators.
“His ugly choice to mislead the FAA hampered the agency’s ability to protect the flying public and left pilots stranded, without information on certain 737 MAX flight controls,” he said in a statement.
Chicago-based Boeing agreed to a US $ 2.5 billion deal to complete a criminal investigation by the US Department of Justice into the company’s actions. Boeing said in the settlement last year that employees had misled regulators about Max’s safety.
The settlement included fines, money to airlines that bought the plane and compensation for families of the passengers who died in the crashes.
Dozens of passenger families are suing Boeing in federal court in Chicago.