The DOJ is reportedly probing whether Boeing's chief pilot misled regulators over the 737 Max
- Federal prosecutors have questioned Boeing employees in front of a grand jury, investigating whether Boeing intentionally misled the FAA over the design of the 737 Max.
- According to a New York Times report, prosecutors have focused on the former 737 Max program chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner.
- In 2016, Forkner sent messages to a colleague describing an automated flight system, which has been blamed for two fatal crashes, as having "egregious" problems, and said that he had "basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)."
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The Department of Justice is investigating whether Boeing knowingly lied to Federal Aviation Administration officials while working to get approval for the 737 Max, a New York Times report has revealed.
Over the past several months, The Times reported, prosecutors have questioned several Boeing employees in front of a grand jury. The prosecutors specifically focused on whether Boeing's former chief pilot on the 737 Max project, Mark Forkner, had intentionally lied about a new flight-control system on the plane called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System.
The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, was designed to make the 737 Max handle essentially identically to the previous version of the plane - the 737 New Generation, or NG - despite the Max planes having larger engines. Under certain conditions in which those larger engines could cause the plane's nose to drift upward - potentially causing the plane to stall - the MCAS software would activate and automatically adjust the airplane's trim, pointing the nose slightly down.
Design flaws in the MCAS software have been implicated in two fatal 737 Max crashes that killed a combined 346 people.
Federal prosecutors issued a subpoena to Forkner last year for documents related to the plane's development, and Forkner reportedly invoked the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Forkner described "egregious" problems with MCAS in 2016 messages to another Boeing employee, Patrik Gustavsson, saying that the software was "running rampant in the sim" in reference to flight-simulator tests.
In another message, he suggested that he had unintentionally misled the FAA about the issue.
"I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)," he said.
Earlier in 2016, Forkner asked the FAA for permission to remove mentions of the MCAS from the pilot manual for the 737 Max, arguing that it would activate only in rare cases and was designed to run in the background. The FAA approved the request.
"We are cooperating with the Justice Department's investigation," a Boeing spokesperson told The New York Times.
According to The Times, Forkner's lawyers have strongly denied that their client had misled regulators.
"Mark didn't lie to anyone," they said, according to The Times. "He did his job honestly, and his communications to the FAA were honest. As a pilot and Air Force vet, he would never jeopardize the safety of other pilots or their passengers. That is what any fair investigation would find."
The 737 Max has been grounded globally since the second crash, which occurred in March 2019, as it works to complete and gain approval on a fix.
The grounding has led to a crisis at Boeing, which suffered its worst financial year in decades, and which saw CEO Dennis Muilenburg ousted over his handling of the situation.
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