Federal Grand Jury Indicts Former Boeing Pilot in 737 MAX Crash Case

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A federal grand jury in Texas indicted a former

Boeing Co.

BA -1.96%

pilot for allegedly deceiving federal regulators during the plane maker’s development of the 737 MAX before two of the jets crashed, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Mark A. Forkner,

49 years old, was charged with deceiving the Federal Aviation Administration regarding training materials related to a flight-control system that was later blamed for playing a large role in the crashes, the Justice Department said. The crashes occurred in late 2018 and early 2019 and took 346 lives.

An attorney for Mr. Forkner couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

David Gerger,

an attorney for Mr. Forkner, has previously said that Mr. Forkner, a pilot and Air Force veteran, wouldn’t endanger pilots or passengers and his communications with regulators were honest.

Prosecutors alleged Mr. Forkner provided the agency with “materially false, inaccurate, and incomplete information” about the flight-control systems known as MCAS.

As a result of the alleged deception, the FAA’s training specialists and airline pilot manuals and training materials lacked any reference to the system, prosecutors said.

Mr. Forkner allegedly “abused his position of trust by intentionally withholding critical information about MCAS,” Assistant Attorney General

Kenneth Polite Jr.

said in a statement. Such actions deprived airlines and pilots from having crucial information about an important part of the airplane’s flight controls, he said.

Boeing and the FAA declined to comment.

The case against Mr. Forkner marks the first indictment since the two MAX crashes, the first of which occurred three years ago this month.

The automated MCAS system has been blamed for putting the two Boeing 737 MAX jets into fatal nosedives. Accident investigators also cited airline and crew missteps. The accidents prompted a nearly two-year global grounding of the fleet and created the most serious corporate crisis in Boeing’s history. The FAA approved the aircraft to fly again late last year.

The MCAS system was initially designed to activate during certain flight conditions that airline pilots wouldn’t normally encounter. During the aircraft’s development, Boeing engineers expanded the system’s authority and the conditions that would trigger it.

In chat messages released by congressional investigators, Mr. Forkner suggested that he hadn’t told regulators that Boeing engineers made the MCAS system more potent and that pilots would be more likely to encounter it during flight. Mr. Forkner suggested in the messages that he hadn’t known about changes to the flight-control system. “So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” he said in one 2016 message.

The indictment alleged that Mr. Forkner could have at that point told the FAA about the change in the system but instead “withheld this material fact.” A few months later, Mr. Forkner again recommended that the FAA not include a reference to the system in a report that determined how much training pilots would need to fly the new jet, the indictment said.

Mr. Gerger has said that Mr. Forkner’s chat messages referred to problems with a simulator, not the aircraft.

Mr. Forkner is charged with two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce and four counts of wire fraud, prosecutors said. The Justice Department said Mr. Forkner’s alleged deception withheld important information from U.S.-based airline customers that purchased the jets from Boeing.

Mr. Forkner knew a key Boeing objective was to secure FAA approval for a training package that wouldn’t require MAX pilots to undergo simulator training, which would be costly to the manufacturer’s airline customers, according to the indictment.

A new type of defect on Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft surfaced recently, the latest in a series of issues that have led to a halt in deliveries. The company now has more than $25 billion of jets in its inventory. WSJ’s Andrew Tangel explains how Boeing got here. Photo: Reuters

Mr. Forkner knew Boeing could suffer financially if regulators required simulator training, according to the indictment, which cited a December 2014 email he allegedly wrote: “It was Mark, yes Mark! Who cost Boeing tens of millions of dollars!”

The Wall Street Journal has previously reported that Boeing had agreed to rebate

Southwest Airlines Co.

$1 million per MAX plane that required simulator training.

Boeing in January reached a $2.5 billion settlement with the Justice Department in the case. The company was charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. However, under terms of the settlement, Boeing will avoid prosecution on that charge—and remain eligible for federal contracts—as long as the company avoids legal trouble for a period of three years.

Boeing’s settlement with the Justice Department, which didn’t cite Mr. Forkner by name, stated that the misconduct by its former employees was “neither pervasive across the organization, nor undertaken by a large number of employees, nor facilitated by senior management.”

(more to come)

Write to Andrew Tangel at [email protected] and Dave Michaels at [email protected]

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