Boeing released more than 100 pages of documents to Congress on Thursday detailing internal messages that reveal how, during certification of the 737 MAX, company employees spoke of deceiving international air safety regulators and Boeing’s airline customers, and successfully fought off moves over several years to require anything but minimal pilot training for the new airplane.
The documents also confirm that Boeing rejected a proposed system safety upgrade to the MAX on the grounds that doing so would add cost by triggering a need for all pilots to have flight-simulator training to qualify to fly the MAX.
Just this week, Boeing finally relented and is now recommending flight-simulator training for all pilots before the MAX returns to service.
The documents also suggest that Boeing’s development of the simulators, working in Miami, Singapore, London and Shanghai with a new equipment supplier called TRU, was plagued with all sorts of technical problems.
And they show that Boeing planned to carefully present the new flight control software on the MAX that went haywire during the two crashes — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — as simply an extension of an existing system so as to avoid increased certification and pilot training impact.
The documents include derogatory references to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and foreign regulators, to simulator supplier TRU, and to airline customers.
“This airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys,” one Boeing pilot wrote to another in a 2017 exchange.
Boeing issued a profuse apology as it released the documents and promised to take disciplinary action against individuals involved.
“We regret the content of these communications, and apologize to the FAA, Congress, our airline customers, and to the flying public for them,” Boeing said. “The language used in these communications, and some of the sentiments they express, are inconsistent with Boeing values.”
A Boeing official added that the communications “involve a small number of employees,” primarily Boeing pilots and other personnel involved with the development and qualification of its 737 MAX simulators.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House committee investigating the 737 MAX, called the newly released documents “incredibly damning.”
“They paint a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go to in order to evade scrutiny from regulators, flight crews, and the flying public, even as its own employees were sounding alarms internally,” DeFazio said.
One exchange related to Indonesian airline Lion Air is particularly chilling.
In June 2017, a month after the first MAX was delivered to Malindo Air, a Malaysian subsidiary of Lion Air Group, one Boeing pilot wrote to another during an instant message exchange about how Lion Air was asking for a flight simulator to train its pilots on the MAX.
“Maybe because of their own stupidity,” he wrote. “I’m scrambling to figure out how to unscrew this now! idiots”
“WHAT THE F%$&!!!!,” the second pilot responded. “But their sister airline is already flying it!”
The first pilot responded that he’d asked for a teleconference with the civil-aviation authority of Indonesia, which is called DGCA.
“Not sure if this is Lion’s fault or DGCA yet,” he wrote.
The names of the pilots are redacted, though in one instance the name slipped through: Patrik Gustavsson, the deputy lead technical pilot on the MAX program. The other pilot is identifiable by his title in multiple emails as Mark Forkner, at the time chief technical pilot on the MAX.
The two pilots were working to develop the flight simulators and to determine the pilot training that would be required for a pilot to move from the previous 737 model to the MAX.
In an internal email that same day, Forkner, wrote “I’m putting out fires with [redacted name] who suddenly think they need simulator training to fly the MAX.”
The following day, Forkner forcefully argued in an email to someone in Jakarta, Indonesia, headquarters of Lion Air, that “There is absolutely no reason to require your pilots to require a MAX simulator to begin flying the MAX,” he wrote. “Boeing does not understand what is to be gained.”
Forkner asked what the Indonesian regulator DGCA was requiring. He argued that the regulatory authorities in the U.S., Europe, Canada, China, Malaysia and Argentina had all accepted that only a short course of computer-based training was necessary.
The hard sell worked. On June 7, the airline official wrote back to accept Boeing’s position. Forkner promptly emailed a colleague within Boeing: “Looks like my jedi mind trick worked again!”
Forkner later described how he sent an email to the DGCA listing all the airlines and regulators that accept the computer-based training rather than simulator training for the MAX, “to make them feel stupid about trying to require any additional training requirements.”
The first MAX crash that killed 189 people the following year was a Lion Air jet in Indonesia.
Throughout the documents, from 2013 to 2018, employees stress the importance of presenting the MAX as a simple derivative of the previous 737 model with systems that would not require extensive additional certification or pilot training.
“I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required to transition from the NG to the MAX. Boeing will not allow that to happen,” Forkner wrote in March 2017. “We’ll go face to face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement.”
In 2018, the documents show, multiple Boeing employees working on the MAX simulator had serious concerns about technical deficiencies and related problems with the simulator.
In February that year, a Boeing employee discussed the state of the simulators in an instant message exchange. “Honesty is the only way in this job – integrity when lives are on the line on the aircraft and training programs shouldn’t be taken with a pinch of salt,” he wrote to another pilot. “Would you put your family on a MAX simulator trained aircraft?”
“I wouldn’t,” he answered himself and his colleague agreed, responding, “No.”
Later that year, in an email discussion between two Boeing employees, one asked “what is causing the MAX simulator program to press on regardless of the risks to the Boeing brand?”
“Everyone has it in their head meeting schedule is the most important because that’s what Leadership pressure and messages. All the messages are about meeting schedule, not delivering quality,” he wrote. “We put ourselves in this position by picking the lowest cost supplier and signing up to impossible schedules. Why did the lowest ranking and most unproven supplier receive the contract? Solely because of bottom dollar.”
A 2013 internal discussion revolved around how Boeing would present the new MCAS system to the FAA.
“If we emphasize MCAS is a new function there may be a greater certification and training impact,” a document states, and so emphasizes that this must not be done. Instead, the document insists that MCAS is to be presented at all times as merely an addition to an existing flight control system called Speed Trim.
The internal documents also verify how and why Boeing rejected a proposal to add a new flight control system to the MAX called synthetic airspeed that several engineers said might have prevented the two MAX crashes.
Late last year, The Seattle Times reported about an internal ethics complaint filed by engineer Curtis Ewbank. The complaint described how Ewbank and other colleagues, tasked with studying past crashes to make new planes safer, had proposed to managers and senior executives various safety upgrades to the MAX, including synthetic airspeed.
Ewbank’s complaint said the proposal was rejected to keep down costs and additional training for Boeing’s airline customers.
Documents released Thursday included internal email exchanges from February 2013 showing managers discussing synthetic airspeed, a system that was already installed on the 787 Dreamliner. One technical pilot tells other employees in the emails that “an introduction of synthetic airspeed to the MAX would drastically alter” a memorized checklist that pilots are trained to use during critical situations.
If synthetic airspeed were made standard on the MAX, as opposed to optional, the pilot wrote, “it would likely jeopardize the Program directive to maintain Level B (computer-based) training for our customers.”
Boeing in a statement distanced itself from the sentiments expressed in the documents, which it said were released “as a reflection of our commitment to transparency and cooperation with the authorities.”
The jetmaker defended the certification of the flight simulators as sound, in the end.
“These communications do not reflect the company we are and need to be, and they are completely unacceptable,” Boeing stated. “That said, we remain confident in the regulatory process for qualifying these simulators.”
“We are confident that all of Boeing’s MAX simulators are functioning effectively,” the company said. “The qualification activities referenced in these communications occurred early in the service life of these simulators.”
The FAA, which eventually certified both the MAX and the simulators, also defended the final outcome, despite the revelations in the documents of chaos behind the scenes during the yearslong process.
“Our experts determined that nothing in the submission pointed to any safety risks that were not already identified as part of the ongoing review of proposed modifications to the aircraft,” the FAA said in a statement.
It said that the simulator equipment “has been evaluated and qualified three times in the last six months.”
Regarding the flight simulators, the FAA said that “any potential safety deficiencies identified in the documents have been addressed.”
“While the tone and content of some of the language contained in the documents is disappointing, the FAA remains focused on following a thorough process for returning the Boeing 737 MAX to passenger service,” the safety regulator added.
Corrected: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified an aviation regulator mentioned in the documents, the DGCA. The reference was to the safety regulator of Indonesia, not India, though both have the same name and acronym.