Boeing Pilot Raised Concerns About 737 MAX Years Before Deadly Crashes

Date : 10/19/2019 @ 12:00AM
Source : Dow Jones News
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Boeing Pilot Raised Concerns About 737 MAX Years Before Deadly Crashes

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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 Administration.

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 "egregious."

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 the case."

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 crashes.

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 fixed."

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 $344.

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 Friday.

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 issues.

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 person added.

"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 at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 18, 2019 19:45 ET (23:45 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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