Test pilot charged with deceiving FAA calls indictment 'a search for a scapegoat'

Marin Wolf
The Dallas Morning News

Dallas – A lawyer for the former test pilot indicted for misleading safety regulators about fatal flaws with the Boeing 737 Max says the government’s fraud charges amount to “a search for a scapegoat.”

Mark Forkner, 49, of Keller, is accused of withholding information from the Federal Aviation Administration about the plane’s automated flight stabilizing system blamed in two crashes that killed 346 people in 2018 and 2019. A federal grand jury in Dallas returned the indictment Thursday.

In this Sept. 30, 2020, file photo, a Boeing 737 Max jet, piloted by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson, prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle.

In a statement Friday, Forkner’s lawyer disputed the government’s case.

“This tragedy deserves a search for the truth – not a search for a scapegoat,” said David Gerger, a partner at Gerger Khalil Hennessy & McFarlane LLP in Houston. “If the government takes this case to trial, the truth will show that Mark did not cause this tragedy, he did not lie, and he should not be charged.”

Forkner pleaded not guilty Friday in his initial appearance in federal court in Fort Worth.

The indictment alleged Forkner provided the FAA with “materially false, inaccurate and incomplete information” during its certification of Boeing’s prized 737 Max. He faces two counts of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce and four counts of wire fraud, which could carry a total maximum penalty of 100 years in prison.

Forkner joined Boeing as a technical pilot for the 737 Max flight team in 2012 and became the aircraft’s chief technical pilot in 2014. He left the Chicago-based company in 2018 and joined Dallas-based Southwest Airlines for two years before taking a buyout last year.

Because of Forkner’s alleged deception, government prosecutors said a key document published by the FAA and used in airplane manuals and pilot-training materials by U.S.-based airlines didn’t mention the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. The system, when paired with a faulty sensor, took control of the plane from pilots and steered it toward the ground.

Prosecutors said Forkner learned about an important change to the MCAS system in 2016, but withheld the information from the FAA. Forkner told another Boeing employee in 2016 that MCAS was “egregious” and “running rampant” when he tested it in a flight simulator, comments he did not tell to safety regulators.

The MCAS omission likely influenced airlines’ decisions to buy the next-generation 737 Max airplanes, according to prosecutors, as it allowed Boeing to minimize the additional training required for pilots, lowering the cost of the aircraft.

“In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forkner allegedly withheld critical information form regulators,” said Chad Meacham, acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. “His callous choice to mislead the FAA hampered the agency’s ability to protect the flying public and left pilots in the lurch, lacking information about certain 737 Max flight controls.”

In a December 2014 email, Forkner said a more expensive training classification for the 737 Max would have been “thrown squarely on my shoulders” by Boeing. Congressional investigators suggested the additional training would have added $1 million to the price of each plane.

The crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia led to a 20-month worldwide grounding of the 737 Max fleet.

An attorney representing families of crash victims said he doesn’t want to see Forkner become the “fall guy.”

“Yes the families are happy that he has been indicted,” Robert Clifford told reporters, according to WFAA-TV. “But they also believe this indictment should spark further criminal inquiry to possible misdeeds by others.”

Forkner’s lawyer ended his statement with a plea to others involved in the 737 Max certification.

“To those of you who know the truth – you may have worked at Boeing or the FAA or an airline – now is the time to help,” Gerger said. “Help us make Mark’s trial a search for truth, not a search for a scapegoat.”