A Texas jury has found a former Boeing test pilot guilty of defrauding federal regulators about a Boeing 737 Max jetliner’s original flight-control system.
FORTWORTH, Texas – A former Boeing Co. test pilot was acquitted Wednesday of a federal charge of fraud by federal regulators over a key flight-control system that led to two fatal crashes involving 737 Max jets.
A jury in Federal District Court in Fort Worth heard less than two hours before Mark Forkner was found guilty of four counts of wire fraud.
Defense attorneys said Boeing engineers did not tell Forkner about changes to the flight software, which is known by its acronym, MCAS. Lawyers said Forkner was a scapegoat for Boeing and FAA officials who sought to avoid guilt after the Max crash, which killed 346 people.
“We are extremely grateful that this jury and judge was so smart, so fair, so independent that they saw it,” said Defense Attorney David Gargar after the verdict.
Judiciary spokesman Joshua Steve said the department was in favor of investigating and prosecuting the case. “While we are disappointed with the outcome, we respect the jury’s verdict,” he said.
Evidence at the trial lasted less than three days after the jury election and the lawyers’ opening statements on Friday evening. Forkner did not testify. Judge Reed O’Connor instructed the judges not to consider his silence as a sign of guilt or innocence. The defense called only one witness, a current Boeing pilot, who testified for about an hour.
Forkner was Boeing’s chief technical pilot for the 737 Max, which gave him an important role in determining pilot-training requirements. Prosecutors tried to use Forkner’s internal messages to colleagues against him, especially one where he said he had inadvertently misled regulators. Defense lawyers say Forkner’s message is not a MCAS, but a complaint about a flight simulator.
An FAA official who worked with Forkner, Stacey Klein, testified that Forkner lied to him that MCAS would never be active during normal airline use, only in certain high-speed situations that pilots would never encounter. Forkner’s lawyers say Boeing engineers did not tell him that the system had been expanded and that he told Klein what he knew.
Prosecutors base the allegations on wire fraud on Forkner’s communications with the FAA and two major Boeing customers, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. Each count can result in up to 20 years in prison.
In two crashes – in Indonesia in 2018 and in Ethiopia in 2019 – based on faulty sensor readings, MCAS automatically pointed the aircraft’s nose down and the pilots were unable to regain control.
Forkner, who worked at FAA before joining Boeing, left the aircraft manufacturer in 2018, a few months before the first crash, and then briefly worked for Southwest Airlines.