A former Boeing test pilot is on trial for allegedly misleading regulators about the Boeing 737 Max, a model that was involved in two fatal crashes.
Mark A. Forkner is the only person to face criminal charges in the case, which has drawn widespread condemnation from Boeing.
Based on the lawsuits filed by both parties, the trial may have included a lot of evidence from technical experts and internal Boeing contacts to shed light on discussions about Max within the company.
Until his departure in 2018, Forkner was Max’s chief technical pilot at Max’s Boeing, which gave him a key role in assessing the differences between the Max and the previous 737 and determining how much training pilots needed to fly the new version.
According to the complaint, Forkner was aware of the changes that would make an original flight-control system more active than the original plan, but he withheld that knowledge from the Federal Aviation Administration regulators. As a result, information about the new system, abbreviated to MCAS, was removed from an FAA report and aircraft manual. Most pilots didn’t know it.
MCAS played a key role in accidents off the coast of Indonesia in 2018 and in Ethiopia in 2019. The software responds to faulty sensor readings by repeatedly pushing the plane’s nose down, and the pilots are unable to regain control.
The indictment does not hold Forkner responsible for the crash, and federal prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor to bar judges from mentioning the crash.
However, Forkner’s lawyers wanted to ask potential judges what they had read and heard about the crash. They said Forkner would not face criminal charges if the crash did not occur.
“The investigation could have landed on Boeing or its superiors who were once the ‘subject’ but are now witnessing the trial,” the lawyers wrote in a filing. They told witnesses to “favor the prosecution” for fear of being involved in the crash.
The prosecution’s witness list includes three Boeing employees, government experts and representatives of two major Boeing customers: Southwest Airlines and American Airlines.
The defense could call in more than two dozen current or former Boeing employees, including several test pilots and Curtis Ubank, an engineer who resigned after allegations that his bosses refused to improve Max’s safety on the grounds of cost. Forkner has been listed as a potential witness.
Boeing has reached an agreement with federal officials to avoid trial for the conspiracy. The company paid a 244 million fine as part of its January 2021 deal.
Separately, the families of the passengers killed in the crash are asking another federal judge in Fort Worth to restore the Boeing settlement and to consider criminal charges against the company and top officials, who they say are above profit security.
Family members argue that a new version of the Boeing 737 has accelerated production because European rival Airbus was far ahead of it in building more fuel-efficient aircraft. The MCAS was added to the Max to accommodate the newer, larger engines in the 50-year-old 737 design.
“737 is gone,” said Adrian Tool, a British man whose daughter Joanna II died in the Max 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