A Boeing test pilot said he unknowingly lied to US regulators about the safety of the 737 Max well before the aircraft was involved in two fatal accidents, an admission the Federal Aviation Administration says was withheld during its investigation into the crashes.
The text messages from Mark Forkner, then Boeing’s chief test pilot for the 737 Max, said the aircraft’s anti-stall system — a focus of investigations into the crashes that killed 346 people — was “running rampant” on a simulator.
“[T]he plane is trimming itself like craxy (sic),” Mr Forkner wrote in messages seen by the Financial Times. “[G]ranted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious.”
The head of the FAA, Steve Dickson, publicly reprimanded Boeing on Friday for failing to turn over the texts earlier, casting fresh doubt on when the company might get the jet back in the air. The messages were sent between Mr Forkner and a colleague when the Max was originally being certified in 2016.
In a letter to Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief executive, Mr Dickson said the FAA “finds the substance of the document concerning” and was “disappointed” the company did not alert the agency when the exchange was found. “The FAA is reviewing this information to determine what action is appropriate,” he said.
The messages were part of a series of documents handed over to regulators and members of Congress on Friday, which included emails between the FAA and Boeing suggesting a high level of collaboration on their part during the original certification.
In emails between Mr Forkner and the FAA, he appears to negotiate with the regulator about what will be included in the training manuals for the 737 Max. At one point he says he is focused on “Jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by the FAA, etc”.
Boeing’s shares closed down 6.8 per cent to $344, falling sharply following the FAA rebuke.
The company said in a statement that it had produced the document to “the appropriate investigating authority” earlier this year. It gave it to the FAA on Thursday and to the House of Representatives committee investigating the crashes on Friday, it added.
The existence of the messages was first reported by The New York Times and Reuters. In the exchange, Mr Forkner wrote: “[S]o I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly).” Boeing said Mr Forkner no longer works for the company.
David Gerger, a lawyer for Mr Forkner, told The Wall Street Journal: “If you read the whole chat, it is obvious that there was no ‘lie’ and the simulator programme was not operating properly. Based on what he was told, Mark thought the plane was safe, and the simulator would be fixed.”
Mr Dickson’s terse, three-sentence letter to Mr Muilenburg said he expected an immediate explanation about the document and why Boeing did not disclose it sooner.
The company said it has been “voluntarily co-operating” with an investigation into the 737 Max by the House transportation committee, and the text messages were provided as part of that process.
“We will continue to co-operate with the committee as it continues its investigation. And we will continue to follow the direction of the FAA and other global regulators, as we work to safely return the 737 Max to service,” Boeing said.
Peter DeFazio, the Democratic chair of the House transportation committee, called the text messages “outrageous”.
“This exchange is shocking, but disturbingly consistent with what we’ve seen so far in our ongoing investigation of the 737 Max, especially with regard to production pressures and a lack of candour with regulators and customers,” the Congressman from Oregon said.
Mr Muilenburg was stripped of his chairmanship of the crisis-hit aircraft manufacturer last week, although he has retained his chief executive title.
The move came hours after the release of a critical report finding that Boeing had not been clear enough in explaining to regulators the automated MACS system that has been blamed for the fatal crashes of two of its 737 Max jets in the past year.
Boeing is expected to report quarterly results on Wednesday. Mr Muilenberg is scheduled to testify before a House committee on October 30.