Boeing’s MAX crisis deepened Friday with new controversy around an exchange of bantering texts between senior pilots that suggested Boeing knew as early as 2016 about the perils of a new flight-control system later implicated in two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.
The exchange of messages in 2016 between the two lead technical pilots on the Boeing 737 MAX program was released Friday after regulators blew up at the company for belatedly disclosing the matter. The messages reveal that the flight-control system, which two years later went haywire on the crashed flights, was behaving aggressively and strangely in the pilots’ simulator sessions.
In the exchange, one of the pilots states that given the behavior of the system, known as a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), he had unknowingly lied to the FAA about its capabilities.
“It’s running rampant in the sim on me,” 737 Chief Technical Pilot Mark Forkner wrote to Patrik Gustavsson, who would succeed him as chief technical pilot. “I’m levelling off at like 4000 ft, 230 knots and the plane is trimming itself like craxy. I’m like, WHAT?” (Spelling errors in the original.)
“Granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious,” Forkner added.
The exchange shows that the aggressive behavior of MCAS was known to Boeing even ahead of flight testing, and that these top Boeing pilots were caught off guard by the system’s power.
Disclosure of the text chat was followed Friday by the release of emails from Forkner that further called Boeing’s safety culture into question.
The emails show how Forkner, though he had experienced this errant behavior of MCAS, later urged the FAA to keep information about the system out of pilot manuals and MAX training courses.
The news came just ahead of CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s planned appearance before Congress on Oct. 30, and angered the very regulators who will soon decide whether to allow the 737 MAX to fly commercially again.
Boeing has known about the messages for many months. It provided the exchange in February — the month before the second crash in Ethiopia — to the Department of Justice, which had opened a criminal investigation into the development of the 737 MAX, according to a person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity about confidential legal proceedings.
However, Boeing only provided the messages on Thursday to the chief attorney for the Department of Transportation, the federal agency that includes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
That delay prompted FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to write a short, sharply worded letter to Muilenburg Friday, declaring, “I expect your explanation immediately regarding the content of this document and Boeing’s delay in disclosing the document to the safety regulator.”
Boeing said Friday that Muilenburg called Dickson in response, but it did not disclose details of the conversation.
According to the person familiar with the matter, after Boeing had given the messages to the Department of Justice, the company then spent months trying without success to get Forkner or his attorney to discuss the meaning of the messages.
Boeing did not provide the messages to the FAA because the criminal investigation presumably involved dealings between Boeing and FAA over the certification of the jetliner, according to the person.
The Seattle Times reported last month that Forkner had previously refused to provide documents sought by federal prosecutors, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
News of the pilots’ messages, first reported Friday by Reuters, prompted a lacerating statement from Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, condemning “the outrageous instant message chain between two Boeing employees indicating Boeing withheld damning information from the FAA.”
The pilot union at Boeing’s most important 737 customer, Southwest Airlines, also weighed in with heavy criticism.
In a statement, captain Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airline Pilots Association (SWAPA), said, “This is more evidence that Boeing misled pilots, government regulators and other aviation experts about the safety of the 737 MAX. It is clear that the company’s negligence and fraud put the flying public at risk.”
Lying to regulators
In the Nov. 15, 2o16, message exchange, Forkner tells Gustavsson that MCAS is now active down to Mach 0.2 — meaning at low speed, not just in the high-speed maneuver for which it was originally designed. He adds that it will now be necessary to update the description of the system, presumably referring to material Boeing provides the FAA.
“So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” he texted.
Another document released by DeFazio’s committee Friday is an email Forkner sent to an FAA official just over seven months earlier, on March 30, 2016, asking that MCAS be omitted from the pilot manuals and not mentioned in pilot training.
“Are you OK with us removing all reference to MCAS from the FCOM (Flight Crew Operating Manual) and the training as we discussed, as it’s completely transparent to the flight crew and only operates WAY outside of the normal operating envelope,” Forkner wrote.
Having convinced the FAA of that, Forkner then traveled the world talking to foreign regulators also working to certify the MAX. On Nov. 3, 2016, he wrote an email to an FAA official, joking that he was “doing a bunch of traveling … jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by FAA.”
In a separate email to an FAA official in mid-January 2017 — two months after the text exchange when he had noted the “egregious” behavior of MCAS — Forkner suggests two changes to the “differences training” that pilots were to undergo in order to move from flying the prior 737 model to the MAX.
The first change was to delete a reference to MCAS.
“We decided we weren’t going to cover it” in the flight manual and training course, he reminded the FAA official.
Boeing pilots surprised by MCAS changes
The Seattle Times reported in March that the FAA was not fully informed of a major design change to the MCAS system when Boeing expanded it to cover certain low-speed flight situations. It further reported that this change was not updated in the System Safety Assessment that Boeing submitted to the FAA during certification of the MAX.
What’s now apparent from the 2016 exchange is that Boeing’s chief technical pilot on the MAX program was equally in the dark, discovering this change in the system’s behavior only when it initiated nose-down movements in the simulator when he wasn’t expecting it.
“Why are we just now hearing about this?” Forkner asks.
Gustavsson responds: “The test pilots have kept us out of the loop.” He then adds that “It’s really only christine that is trying to work with us, but she has been too busy.” This appears to be a reference to Christine Walsh, who was engineering test pilot on the MAX program.
Forkner concurs about the test pilots: “They’re all so damn busy, and getting pressure from the program.”
It wasn’t only inside Boeing that there was pressure, but also inside the FAA, where technical staff were working on approving Boeing’s MAX certification documents.
DeFazio’s committee on Friday released another email from Boeing to the FAA, one on which Forkner was copied, showing that in early November 2016, nearing the end of the MAX flight tests, the performance data from those tests wasn’t ready. In the email, the Boeing official proposes providing pilot manuals to the FAA without the data, promising that the extra information would follow in “late December earliest.”
This confirms that the FAA safety engineers were receiving the detailed information they needed to assess and approve the MAX only very late in the process. The MAX was certified at the beginning of March 2017.
On Friday, in an email to The Seattle Times, Forkner’s lawyer David Gerger defended his client’s part in the message exchange:
“If you read the whole chat, it is obvious that there was no ‘lie’ and the simulator program was not operating properly,” Gerger wrote. “Based on what he was told, Mark thought the plane was safe, and the simulator would be fixed.”
Another person with knowledge of the matter, who also requested anonymity, said Gerger previously provided Boeing with the same general explanation of his client’s comments in the messages. Yet Gerger would not allow Forkner to be questioned by Boeing, this person said.
Forkner’s exchange with Gustavsson is loose and perhaps boozy.
At the beginning of the exchange, Forkner says, “I’m locked in my hotel room with an ice cold grey goose, I’ll probably fire off a few dozen inappropriate emails before I call it a night.”
“This job is insane,” he adds, prompting Gustavsson to ask if his day was just “the normal chaos.”
Forkner left Boeing in July 2018, before the two crashes. He’s now flying as a first officer with Southwest Airlines. Gustavsson is still 737 chief technical pilot at Boeing.
The copy of the instant message chat provided by Boeing to government officials was saved as an email in the Skype for Business messaging system at almost 7 p.m. on November 15, 2016, immediately after the texts were sent.
Boeing CEO Muilenburg is likely to be questioned closely about the revelations from Forkner and Gustavsson when he appears before Congress.
Boeing has seemed close to getting its upgrades to the MAX flight controls approved by the FAA and the jet cleared to return to commercial service by year end. But the text exchange raise doubts about Boeing’s transparency and threatens to derail its campaign to have the public accept the aircraft as safe.
And the storm of criticism Friday is bound to increase pressure on Muilenburg, just a week after the Boeing board stripped him of his role as company chairman.
Richard Aboulafia, longtime aviation analyst with the Teal Group, said the shock of Friday’s disclosures “will greatly accelerate the drumbeat for change at the top.”
Carter Copeland, a Wall Street analyst with Melius Research, in a message to investors Friday pointed out that the revelations dating back to 2016 don’t change anything about Boeing’s technical fix for the MAX, which is effectively ready to go.
However, he said, the political fallout could influence the FAA and delay the timeline for getting the plane back in commercial service.
“It could impact the political will it may take to get this thing over the finish line,” Copeland said.
In his statement Friday, DeFazio emphasized that the messaging between the pilots raises broad and serious questions about the culture inside Boeing.
“This exchange is shocking, but disturbingly consistent with what we’ve seen so far in our ongoing investigation of the 737 MAX, especially with regard to production pressures and a lack of candor with regulators and customers,” DeFazio said. “This is not about one employee; this is about a failure of a safety culture at Boeing in which undue pressure is placed on employees to meet deadlines and ensure profitability at the expense of safety.”
Boeing said in a statement Friday that it has been cooperating with DeFazio’s committee, though conceding that it had told the committee of the exchange only on Friday.
The day’s news drove Boeing’s stock down almost 7% Friday, from $369 when the market opened to $344 at close.