By Andrew Tangel and Andy Pasztor
A senior Boeing Co. pilot raised concerns about a 737 MAX
flight-control system three years ago, but the company didn't alert
federal regulators until 2019, months after two deadly crashes
involving the same system, according to the Federal Aviation
In a 2016 instant-message exchange, Mark Forkner, then Boeing's
chief technical pilot for the MAX, and a colleague named Patrik
Gustavsson appeared to discuss the plane maker's modifications of
the system, known as MCAS. The pilots compared notes on problems
they had encountered in 737 MAX flight simulators, according to a
transcript of the messages reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, and
Mr. Forkner described some of the MAX's simulated behavior as
Apparently referring to changes to the system, Mr. Forkner
wrote: "So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)." At
the time, FAA regulators were in the process of certifying the 737
MAX as safe to carry passengers.
Mr. Gustavsson replied: "it wasnt a lie, no one told us that was
According to a letter FAA head Steve Dickson sent to Boeing on
Friday, the plane maker discovered the messages in February of this
year, several months after a Lion Air 737 MAX crashed in Indonesia
and around a month before another of the jets operated by Ethiopian
Airlines crashed, killing all on board. But Mr. Dickson's letter
said Boeing didn't reveal their existence to the agency until this
week and demanded the plane maker provide an immediate explanation
for the delay.
The messages suggest Boeing's pilots may have encountered some
of the problems that eventually led to the two crashes, which
together claimed 346 lives. MCAS has been implicated in both
David Gerger, an attorney for Mr. Forkner, said: "If you read
the whole chat, it is obvious that there was no 'lie' and the
simulator program was not operating properly. Based on what he was
told, Mark thought the plane was safe, and the simulator would be
The messages, coupled with questions about why they weren't
shared earlier with the FAA or congressional investigators,
intensify scrutiny on Boeing's management and safety culture.
They also raise the stakes for Boeing at an Oct. 30 hearing of
the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Rep. Peter
DeFazio of Oregon, the Democratic chairman of the committee, has
signaled that Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg will be
grilled about whether the company misled regulators about MCAS and
then withheld relevant documents from investigators.
Mr. DeFazio said the messages "show deliberate concealment" of a
problematic system that was on the plane but not included in the
training manual. "That's just outrageous." After months assessing
the relative responsibility of federal regulators and the plane
maker in creating the MAX crisis, Mr. DeFazio said now his probe's
focus "is shifting way over to the Boeing side."
"You can't pin this on just this guy," he said, adding that
"this was a cultural problem."
The messages between Messrs. Forkner and Gustavsson highlight
issues relating to Boeing's efforts to get the MAX approved
smoothly -- as well as what pilots were told about MCAS -- both
topics that congressional investigators and federal prosecutors are
focused on, according to people familiar with the probes.
The pilots appeared to discuss Mr. Forkner's role in Boeing's
crafting pilot MAX manuals, which excluded references to MCAS.
After describing the feature "running rampant" in the flight
simulator, Mr. Forkner wrote: "Oh great, that means we have to
update the speed trim description" in those documents. Speed trim
is another flight-control system related to MCAS.
Investigators have been looking into whether such an update
could have alerted FAA officials about the power of MCAS, or
possibly prompted the agency to mandate additional simulator
training for pilots on the new model. Boeing and airlines that
bought the MAX, especially Southwest Airlines Co., were determined
to persuade the FAA that additional simulator training wasn't
required because MCAS was simply an offshoot of the long-standing
speed-trim system previously approved by regulators.
At the end of the exchange, when the aviators complain that
Boeing test pilots failed to alert them about the issues, Mr.
Forkner responded: "They're all so damn busy, and getting pressure
from the program."
Boeing is also the subject of a criminal investigation by the
U.S. Department of Justice, which is working with the Federal
Bureau of Investigation and the Transportation Department's
inspector general's office to delve into how the 737 MAX aircraft
was developed and certified. Last week, the company stripped Mr.
Muilenburg of his dual role as chairman. On Friday, Boeing shed $14
billion in market value, with its shares closing down 6.8% at
Boeing said Mr. Muilenburg called the FAA chief on Friday to
respond to the concerns raised in his letter, and the company
reiterated it will continue to cooperate with the House panel.
A Boeing spokesman said the company didn't believe it was
appropriate to share the document with the FAA sooner because of
the ongoing criminal investigation. The spokesman said Boeing
shared it with the FAA's parent agency on Thursday because it
planned to turn the letter over to congressional investigators on
Separately, the FAA provided Mr. DeFazio's committee with a
batch of emails -- covering the period from 2015 to 2018 -- between
Mr. Forkner and unidentified FAA officials dealing with MAX
In one dated Jan. 17, 2017, with the name of the agency
recipient blacked out, Mr. Forkner wrote about deleting any mention
of MCAS from certain manuals or computer-based training for pilots.
"We decided we weren't going to cover it," the email said, "since
it's way outside the normal operating envelope" and therefore
pilots wouldn't be expected to experience it.
Ten months earlier, according to another email, Mr. Forkner
raised the same issue, telling another unidentified FAA official
the system was "completely transparent to the flight crew."
Boeing provided the instant messages to the Justice Department
in February after discovering them, and then to the Department of
Transportation's general counsel Thursday night, before giving the
same information to congressional committees investigating the MAX,
according to a person familiar with the matter. The FAA is part of
the Transportation Department. The Justice Department was informed
Boeing would hand over the information to other agencies, this
"We will continue to follow the direction of the FAA and other
global regulators, as we work to safely return the 737 MAX to
service," Boeing said, adding that the company shared the documents
with the appropriate authorities in a timely manner. A Justice
Department spokesman declined to comment about why the agency
didn't notify aviation regulators about the exchange.
Mr. Forkner served as an important liaison among Boeing, FAA
officials vetting the new model and managers at Southwest, the
MAX's lead customer, which was establishing training programs to
serve as templates for the rest of the industry.
Mr. Forkner left Boeing in 2018 and now works at Southwest. An
attorney for Mr. Gustavsson, who succeeded Mr. Forkner in his old
role and is still at Boeing, couldn't be reached.
A Senate panel is also likely to hold a hearing discussing MAX
later this month. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), said he
wanted to question Mr. Muilenburg and Boeing's board of directors
about the instant messages, which he said portrayed a "decrepit
culture of corruption in safety."
Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Andy Pasztor
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 18, 2019 19:45 ET (23:45 GMT)
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