A former top pilot at Boeing who oversaw the testing of the 737 MAX jetliner has been indicted for allegedly deceiving regulators about a flight-control system later blamed for two crashes that killed hundreds of people.
A federal grand jury in the Northern District of Texas indicted Mark Forkner, 49, late Thursday on six counts of fraud for allegedly providing investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration with “materially false, inaccurate and incomplete information.”
In an effort to save Boeing money on pilot-training costs, Forkner allegedly withheld key information about flight-control software that was later implicated in two infamous 737 MAX crashes, which killed a combined 346 people.
Forkner could face up to 100 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
“His callous choice to mislead the F.A.A. hampered the agency’s ability to protect the flying public and left pilots in the lurch, lacking information about certain 737 Max flight controls,” said Chad Meacham, the acting US attorney for the Northern District of Texas, in a statement.
The case is the first time an individual has faced charges related to the crashes.
Forkner is expected to make an initial court appearance Friday in Fort Worth, Texas, prosecutors said.
In 2015, Boeing and Forkner told the FAA that MCAS would only activate when the 737 MAX was moving at certain high speeds.
But a year later, Forkner discovered that the system could be triggered at slower, more common speeds. Upon the discovery, Forkner told a colleague in a message included in the indictment that he had “basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly).”
Forkner failed to share the finding with the FAA and repeatedly recommended that mention of the system be deleted from a forthcoming regulatory report because it was “way outside the normal operating envelope,” according to the indictment.
Any mention of MCAS was left out of pilot-training materials, putting lives at risk and defrauding Boeing’s commercial airline customers, according to the indictment.
The surprise activation of MCAS — in addition to other issues such as lack of training —was later implicated in the 737 MAX crashes in 2018 in Indonesia, which killed 189 people, and 2019 in Ethiopia, in which all 157 people aboard perished.
The indictment also included an internal Boeing email that suggests Forkner felt pressure to secure lower-level required pilot training, referred to as “Level B,” for the 737 MAX that would save Boeing money.
Forkner allegedly wrote in December 2014, “if we lose Level B [it] will be thrown squarely on my shoulders.
” ‘It was Mark, yes Mark! Who cost Boeing tens of millions of dollars!’ ” he added, apparently suggesting that is what higher-ups would say in blaming him for more costly training.
The crashes sparked a nearly two-year grounding of the fleet of 737 MAX jets and thrust the $127 billion company into turmoil.
Earlier this year, Boeing agreed with the Justice Department to pay a $2.5 billion settlement related to the crashes.
As part of the settlement, Boeing was charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the FAA, but it will avoid prosecution on the rap as long as the company dodges further legal trouble for three years.
The settlement did not mention Forkner by name but concluded that two technical pilots deceived the FAA.
The settlement also exonerated senior management, saying it had not facilitated the misconduct.
But the company later fired its CEO over the scandal.
Representatives for Boeing declined to comment.
Forkner’s lawyer, David Gerger, declined to comment until after Friday’s court appearance.