Former Boeing 737 Max Pilot Pleads Not Guilty to Federal Grand Jury Indictment

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A screengrab from "Boeing's Fatal Flaw," the September 2021 FRONTLINE and New York Times documentary investigating the 737 Max disasters.

A screengrab from "Boeing's Fatal Flaw," the September 2021 FRONTLINE and New York Times documentary investigating the 737 Max disasters.

October 15, 2021

On Oct. 14, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that a federal grand jury had criminally indicted Boeing’s former chief technical pilot for the 737 Max airplane, Mark Forkner, on fraud charges. The following day, Forkner pleaded not guilty, Reuters reported.

Forkner is the only individual to be criminally charged to date in connection with the 737 Max catastrophe, in which planes bearing what would prove to be a fatal design flaw involving the software system MCAS entered commercial service. Two planes crashed shortly after takeoff within the span of five months in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people.

The indictment alleged that Forkner provided “materially false, inaccurate and incomplete information” to the Federal Aviation Administration about MCAS and, per the DOJ’s announcement, that he “schem[ed] 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 E. Meacham, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, said in the announcement. “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.”

After an initial court appearance in Fort Worth, Texas, on Oct. 15, Forkner attorney David Gerger told the press: “Everyone who was affected by this tragedy deserved a search for the truth, not a search for a scapegoat. If the government takes this case to trial, the truth will show that Mark did not cause this tragedy, Mark did not lie, and Mark should not be charged.”

According to the indictment, Forkner left Boeing in summer 2018. The company has not yet issued a statement.

Forkner’s role at the airplane maker leading up to the crashes was detailed in Boeing’s Fatal Flaw, a September 2021 FRONTLINE documentary with The New York Times that explored what Boeing knew about the potential for disaster with the 737 Max — the fastest-selling jet in Boeing’s history — and when the company knew it. The documentary also examined flawed oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration.

As the film recounts, both the October 2018 and March 2019 737 Max crashes involved MCAS, an automated software system that was supposed to keep people safe but instead contributed to tragic deaths when triggered by a single faulty sensor.

Inside the company, there had been early signs of potential trouble involving MCAS on the new plane, including a 2012 incident in which a Boeing test pilot’s simulated flight of the Max resulted in what he called a catastrophic event when MCAS was activated.

“It showed that, if that had been in real life, he [could] have lost the airplane,” Doug Pasternak said in the documentary. Pasternak led the 2019-2020 congressional investigation into the 737 Max and spoke publicly in Boeing’s Fatal Flaw for the first time about what he had found. “They realize, from that moment on, even a Boeing test pilot may have trouble responding to MCAS.”

Yet internal communications explored in the film show that Boeing was determined to maintain the status quo: avoiding potential scrutiny by the Federal Aviation Administration that would add costs; keeping new simulator training for pilots to a minimum; and even requesting that MCAS be removed from pilot training manuals.

Forkner was a key figure in those efforts, sources said in the film.

“He had played a definitive role in making sure that there was minimal pilot training on the Max,” New York Times reporter Natalie Kitroeff said in the documentary.

Pasternak described instant messages and emails Boeing shared with his committee during its investigation: “In one of these emails that Mark Forkner sent out, he says, ‘I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required to transition to Max.’ And he said, quote, ‘Boeing will not allow that to happen.’”

New York Times reporter David Gelles described Forkner as a “key liaison between the company and the FAA.”

He was the person who personally emailed the FAA, asking for MCAS to be removed from the pilot manual,” Kitroeff said. “That was an important piece of this, because we understood that the FAA really didn’t know that MCAS became more powerful.”

According to Gelles, Forkner “was speaking, absolutely, on behalf of the company. This was not some low-level employee. And he was asking for something that was really quite substantial: that a new piece of software that made the plane behave in ways that it previously hadn’t be concealed from the pilots. This is where the commercial pressures from the executive level come right down to the development of the airplane.”

At one point, Gelles said, Forkner received an award for minimizing training on the 737 Max.

“Mark Forkner certainly was not a lone actor in what he did,” Pasternak said. “He was following through on a policy by Boeing to ensure that the program did not have to put pilots in a flight simulator.”

Months after requesting that MCAS be removed from pilot training manuals, the film recounted, Forkner texted a colleague with a shocking realization.

This appears to be the moment where Mark Forkner learns that MCAS has been expanded. He writes in that message, ‘I basically lied to the regulators, unknowingly,’” Kitroeff said in the film. The Oct. 14 indictment alleged this was when Forkner realized MCAS was kicking in at speeds lower than he and others at Boeing had previously told the FAA. The indictment said Forkner confirmed this with a senior Boeing engineer on the 737 Max program.

But he never went back and corrected the record,” Gelles said in the documentary. “He never went back and fixed the error.”

In other documents, the former Boeing pilot who had written notes assuring MCAS would not be put in training manuals joked about swaying regulators with “Jedi mind-tricking.” Additional documents even showed Forkner dismissing the idea of pilot training for Lion Air.

When Lion Air, the airline that ultimately flew the first plane that crashed, was asking for simulator training, he was disparaging them to his colleagues, calling them stupid,” Gelles said in the film.

“I mean, seriously?” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Transportation Committee, said in the film. “Did that ever cross their minds, that they were going to let something go into the air that could potentially kill people?”

Forkner wouldn’t speak to FRONTLINE in connection with the documentary, but his lawyer told The New York Times reporters that Forkner’s communications with the FAA were honest and that “he would never jeopardize the safety of other pilots or their passengers.”

According to the DOJ’s announcement, Forkner, if convicted, could face up to 20 years in prison for each of four wire fraud counts and 10 years each for two fraud counts related to aircraft parts in interstate commerce.

No one other than Forkner has been criminally charged in connection with the failures leading up to the 737 Max crashes. Dennis Muilenberg, the CEO of Boeing at the time of the 737 Max crashes, was dismissed from the company in December 2019.

“Senior leaders throughout Boeing are responsible for the culture of concealment that ultimately led to the 737 MAX crashes and the death of 346 innocent people — Mark Forkner’s indictment should not be the end of the accountability for this colossal and tragic failure,” DeFazio said in a statement after the indictment was announced.

Earlier this year, Boeing resolved a criminal charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States brought by the Department of Justice and admitted to “misleading statements, half-truths and omissions” about MCAS. It agreed to pay a $2.5 billion settlement: a nearly $244 million fine, $500 million to the families of the victims and $1.77 billion to compensate the airlines affected by the 20-month grounding of the 737 Max.

Boeing declined to be interviewed for the documentary. In a statement, the company said safety is its top priority and it has worked closely with regulators, investigators and stakeholders “to implement changes that ensure accidents like these never happen again.”

Watch Boeing’s Fatal Flaw, the story of how intense market pressure and failed oversight contributed to tragic deaths and a catastrophic crisis for one of the world’s most iconic industrial names, in its entirety above, or stream it in FRONTLINE’s online collection of documentaries, in the PBS Video App or on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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