A Boeing pilot involved in testing the 737 Max airliner was indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury for misleading safety regulators who were assessing the plane, which was later involved in two fatal crashes.
The indictment accuses Mark A Forkner of giving the Federal Aviation Administration false and incomplete information about an automated flight control system that played a role in the crashes, which killed 346 people.
Prosecutors said that due to Forkner’s “alleged deception”, the system was not mentioned in key FAA documents, pilot manuals or pilot training materials provided to airlines.
The flight control system automatically stuck the noses of the Max jets that crashed in 2018 in Indonesia and in 2019 in Ethiopia. The pilots tried unsuccessfully to regain control, but the two planes nosed down a few minutes after takeoff.
Most pilots were unaware of the system, known as the Maneuver Characteristics Augmentation System, until after the first crash.
Forkner, 49, has been charged with two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce and four counts of wire fraud. Federal prosecutors said he was scheduled to appear in court for the first time on Friday in Fort Worth, Texas. If found guilty on all counts, he could face a sentence of up to 100 years in prison.
Boeing designed the Max to be a more fuel-efficient version of the venerable 737 that could rival an aircraft developed by the company’s European rival, Airbus. The flight control system was supposed to make the Max fly like the previous 737s despite a tendency for the nose to tilt upward under certain circumstances.
Congressional investigators suggested Forkner and Boeing downplayed the power of the system to avoid requiring pilots to undergo extensive and expensive retraining, which would increase airlines’ costs to operate the aircraft.
Chad Meacham, acting US attorney for the North Texas District, said Forkner tried to save Boeing money by withholding “critical information” from regulators.
“His ruthless choice to mislead the FAA hampered the agency’s ability to protect the flying public and left pilots in a bind, lacking information on some of the 737 Max’s flight controls,” said Meacham in a statement.
Chicago-based Boeing has agreed to a $ 2.5 billion settlement to end a Justice Department criminal investigation into the company’s shares. Boeing said in last year’s settlement that employees misled regulators about the Max’s safety. The settlement included a fine, money for the airlines that purchased the plane and compensation for the families of passengers who died in the crashes.
Dozens of passenger families are suing Boeing in federal court in Chicago.