A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted a former top pilot for Boeing, Mark Forkner, in connection with statements he and the company made about its troubled 737 Max jet, the culmination of a long investigation.
Mr. Forkner is accused of deceiving the Federal Aviation Administration and of “scheming to defraud Boeing’s U.S.‑based airline customers to obtain tens of millions of dollars for Boeing,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
Prosecutors contend that Mr. Forkner provided the aviation agency with “materially false, inaccurate and incomplete information” about flight control software implicated in two crashes in 2018 and 2019 in which 346 people were killed. That software, known as MCAS (for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) was designed to push down the plane’s nose in certain situations.
“In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forkner allegedly withheld critical information from regulators,” Chad E. Meacham, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, said in a statement. “His callous choice to mislead the F.A.A. hampered the agency’s ability to protect the flying public and left pilots in the lurch, lacking information about certain 737 Max flight controls.”
Mr. Forkner would be the first individual to face criminal charges related to the 737 Max’s problems. Boeing and the Justice Department in the last days of the Trump administration in January announced that they had agreed to a $2.5 billion legal settlement to resolve a criminal charge that the company had conspired to defraud the F.A.A. The company eventually fired its chief executive over the debacle and the scandal has cost it billions of dollars more than its settlement with the federal government.
Lawyers for Mr. Forkner, who has been under investigation for more than a year and half, said in a statement to The New York Times last year that he “didn’t lie to anyone” and added that “he would never jeopardize the safety of other pilots or their passengers.” They did not immediately respond to requests for comment after the indictment on Thursday.
Mr. Forkner is expected to make his initial court appearance on Friday in Fort Worth before a U.S. magistrate judge. The six fraud charges in his indictment carry maximum penalties totaling several decades in prison.
The Max was grounded worldwide in March 2019 after the fatal crashes, one in Indonesia and the other in Ethiopia. The episode deeply damaged Boeing’s reputation and its relationships with airlines, regulators and policymakers around the world.
The F.A.A. approved the plane to fly again in November 2020, and regulators in other countries followed soon after. Since then, the Max has been used to carry out thousands of passenger flights around the world. Boeing has also delivered 194 of the planes to customers between then and the end of September. In June, United Airlines said it planned to buy 200 Max jets.
But even as Boeing emerged from the Max crisis, it was confronted with another: The coronavirus pandemic brought aviation to a standstill, crippling airlines around the world and forcing many to rethink, or at least delay, plans to buy new planes. Boeing has also slowed production and paused deliveries of its 787 Dreamliner in the face of quality concerns.
The F.A.A. and Boeing declined to comment.
MCAS, the flight control software implicated in the crashes, was designed to counteract the Max’s tendency to pitch up in certain situations. It would only operate at certain fast speeds, Boeing and Mr. Forkner told the F.A.A. in June 2015, according to the indictment.
At the time, Mr. Forkner was Boeing’s chief technical pilot, a senior position responsible for the company’s interaction with the F.A.A. group that determined what kind of training pilots would need before flying the Max.
During a simulated test flight in November 2016, Mr. Forkner discovered that the software could be triggered at slower speeds, including those commonly experienced during takeoff and landing. Soon after, he shared his discovery with a colleague, saying in an instant message “I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” according to the filing.
Mr. Forkner did not share the finding with the agency and recommended on multiple occasions that it be deleted from a forthcoming F.A.A. report on the Max because it was “way outside the normal operating envelope,” according to the indictment. Based on that information, the agency dropped mention of the software from the report and MCAS was subsequently left out of manuals and training materials.
The software was found to have been operating in the moments before the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
Before allowing the Max to fly again, the F.A.A. required that Boeing update MCAS to avoid erroneous activation and update display software to alert pilots when data related to the plane’s angle from sensors conflicts, among other changes.