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FAA official says former Boeing chief test pilot misled her about 737 Max

A regulator told a jury Mark Forkner would raise his voice, slam his hands down and his face would turn red during meetings about the Max variant.

FORT WORTH, Texas (CN) — A Federal Aviation Administration official testified Monday that a former Boeing chief test pilot threw tantrums and misled her about changes in the company’s Boeing 737 Max software that were later implicated in two deadly crashes.

Mark Forkner, 49, of Keller, Texas, has pleaded not guilty to four federal counts of wire fraud for allegedly lying to the FAA and airlines during the agency’s evaluation of the Max before it debuted it 2017. The Max is Boeing’s latest variant of the 737-line of narrow-body commercial aircraft that first entered service six decades ago.

The Max was grounded by the agency on March 13, 2019, after the deadly crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 five months earlier and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 three days earlier. Modifications to the variant’s wiring, training protocols and the replacement of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System software resulted in a return to service on Nov. 18, 2020.

Forkner faces up to 80 years in federal prison if convicted.

FAA official Stacey Klein testified for the prosecution on Monday — the second day of Forkner’s trial in Fort Worth. She headed the agency’s determination of pilot training needs for the Max during its development, which required repeated interactions with Forkner. She testified about feeling bullied by Forkner’s “very unprofessional” conduct during their meetings about pilot training for the variant, claiming his face would turn red, that he would slam his hands down onto the table and raise his voice.

Klein told jurors she relied on Forkner to tell her about any design changes to the Max and that they were direct counterparts in the process. Prosecutors allege Forkner downplayed the effects of the new MCAS software, which points the nose of the airplane down in certain situations. The software was added due to the larger, more efficient engines on the Max requiring higher mounting on the wing that changes the plane’s center of gravity compared to earlier variants.

Prosecutors argue that because of Forkner’s alleged deception, a final report published by the FAA lacked any reference of MCAS and resulted in pilot-training materials for U.S. based airlines lacking any reference of it either. They argue Forkner first learned of changes to the software in 2016, but that the FAA didn’t learn about them until after the Flight 610 crash in 2018.

Boeing allegedly urged regulators that the Max would only need minimal training outside of a flight simulator due to slight changes from earlier 737 variants. A lower rating for bigger changes would have required costly, more intensive pilot training in simulators.

Transportation Department official Kent Byers also testified Monday to confirm the authenticity of messages Forkner sent in 2016 to a co-worker admitting “I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)” about changes to MCAS.

Revealed in 2019, Forkner’s messages talked about the software being “egregious” and “running rampant” while he tested it in a simulator.

Forkner’s attorneys have blamed his former coworkers for withholding the key changes from him, claiming he is merely a scapegoat. David Gerger, with Gerger Hennessy in Houston, told jurors during opening arguments Friday that it was not his client that pushed for lower pilot training requirements to save money, but it was instead Boeing’s directors.

It is unknown if Forkner will testify in his own defense.

Forkner is the only person to be criminally charged in the aftermath of the Max crashes and grounding. Boeing itself agreed to pay over $2.5 billion on 2021 to resolve federal criminal accusations that it was misleading about the MCAS software. Under the settlement, Boeing agreed to pay a criminal penalty of $243.6 million, $1.77 billion in compensation for airline customers and establish a $500 million crash victim fund.

Boeing still faces other lawsuits after the crashes from family members of those killed and by the pilots union of Southwest Airlines in Dallas County District Court.

Klein’s testimony came just hours after an older, non-Max 737 variant — a Boeing 737-800 — operated by China Eastern Airlines crashed with approximately 132 people on board.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor reminded jurors that Forkner was not being tried for the two Max crashes.

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