Ex-Boeing pilot’s trial begins on 737 Max fraud charges

FORT WORTH, Texas — A federal prosecutor said Friday that a former Boeing test pilot lied to regulators about changes made to a critical flight-control system on the 737 Max to reduce the cost of training pilots and save the company tens of millions of dollars.

Forkner was tried in U.S. District Court in Fort Worth on four counts of fraud. He is the only person to face criminal charges in the case, which has resulted in widespread condemnation of Boeing.

As the trial began with jury selection and opening statements, Forkner spoke only briefly, when the judge asked for his plea.

“I’m not guilty,” he said as he stood up and turned to face the jury.

Based on documents filed in court by both sides, the lawsuit will likely feature testimony from technical experts as well as internal Boeing communications to shed light on discussions about the Max within the company. Prosecutors will also attempt to use Forkner’s own text messages against him, specifically one in which he said, “So I basically lied to regulators (unknowingly).”

“The defendant had contempt for these regulators, and he made fun of these regulators,” prosecutor Scott Armstrong told jurors, adding that as Forkner learned more about the changes to the system flight control called MCAS, “he doubled down on his lies”.

Defense attorney David Gerger said his side would show jurors that Boeing engineers hid information from Forkner. And it wasn’t Forkner who set out to save the company money by minimizing pilot training requirements, that goal came straight from Boeing’s board, he said.

Opening statements came after the selection of a jury of 11 men and one woman, plus four alternates. An American Airlines pilot was fired; so was a man who said he had flown Boeing Maxes several times.

Judge Reed O’Connor made it clear that there was no way to disqualify every potential juror who had read or seen news reports about the Boeing Max. He asked several people if they could put aside their notions of the issue and focus on the evidence that will be presented when testimony begins on Monday.

Until his departure in 2018, Forkner was Boeing’s chief technical pilot for the Max, which gave him a key role in evaluating the differences between the Max and previous 737s, and determining training. drivers needed to drive the new version.

According to the indictment, Forkner was aware of the changes that activated a key flight control system more often than originally intended, but he hid this information from Federal Aviation Administration regulators. As a result, information about the new flight control system, MCAS, was removed from an FAA report and aircraft manuals. Most pilots didn’t know that.

MCAS activated on faulty sensor readings minutes before the 2018 accidents off Indonesia and 2019 in Ethiopia. He repeatedly pushed the nose of the planes down and the pilots were unable to regain control.

The indictment does not attribute the crashes to Forkner, but his attorneys have said he would not face criminal charges had the crashes not occurred.

“The investigation could have fallen on Boeing, or its senior executives who were once ‘subjects’ but are now witnesses at trial,” defense attorneys wrote in a filing. Fear of being associated with the crashes drove the witnesses “to curry favor with the prosecution“, they said.

The list of prosecution witnesses includes three Boeing employees, government experts and representatives of two major Boeing customers: Southwest Airlines and American Airlines.

The defense could call more than two dozen current or former Boeing employees, including several test pilots and Curtis Ewbank, an engineer who quit after alleging his bosses rejected Max safety upgrades over security concerns. cost. Forkner is listed as a potential witness.

Boeing has reached an agreement with federal officials to avoid conspiracy charges. The company paid a $244 million fine as part of the January 2021 settlement.

Separately, the families of the passengers who died in the crashes are asking another federal judge in Fort Worth to overturn the Boeing settlement and consider criminal charges against the company and top executives, who they say are placing the profit above safety.

Family members argue Chicago-based Boeing rushed production of a new version of the 737 because European rival Airbus was far ahead of it in developing a more fuel-efficient plane. MCAS was added to the Max to accommodate new, larger engines on the 50-year-old 737 design.

“The 737 has had its day,” said Adrian Toole, a Briton whose daughter Joanna died in the Max’s second crash. “The whole thing should have been scrapped, and they should have put a new plane on the drawing board.”

———

David Koenig can be contacted at www.twitter.com/airlinewriter

Comments are closed.