Former Boeing Pilot Indicted in Probe of 737 MAX Crashes

A federal grand jury in Texas indicted a former

Boeing Co.


BA -1.96%

pilot, alleging that he deceived air-safety regulators about a flight-control system later blamed for sending two 737 MAX jets into fatal nosedives.

Mark A. Forkner,

49 years old, was charged with six counts of fraud related to his alleged role in persuading the Federal Aviation Administration to approve pilot-training materials that excluded references to the automated cockpit feature, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday. The crashes occurred in late 2018 and early 2019 and took 346 lives.

David Gerger,

an attorney for Mr. Forkner, didn’t respond to requests for comment late Thursday. Mr. Gerger has previously said that Mr. Forkner, a pilot and Air Force veteran, wouldn’t endanger pilots or passengers and that his communications with regulators were honest.

Prosecutors alleged that Mr. Forkner, in his role as Boeing’s 737 MAX chief technical pilot, withheld crucial information from the FAA about the flight-control system known as MCAS. As a result of his alleged deception, a key FAA report, pilot manuals and training materials lacked references to the system, defrauding Boeing’s airline customers, prosecutors said.

Mr. Forkner “abused his position of trust by intentionally withholding critical information about MCAS,” Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. said in a statement.

Mr. Forkner is expected to make an initial court appearance Friday in Fort Worth, prosecutors said. He faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for each count of wire fraud, and 10 years in prison for each count of fraud involving aircraft parts in interstate commerce.

Boeing and the FAA declined to comment. The case against Mr. Forkner is the first time an individual has faced charges related to the dual MAX crashes, the first of which occurred three years ago this month. Boeing reached a $2.5 billion settlement with the Justice Department earlier this year.

In addition to the MCAS system, accident investigators cited airline and crew missteps as factors in the crashes. The second accident prompted a nearly two-year global grounding of the fleet and plunged Boeing into the deepest corporate crisis in its more than 100-year history. The FAA approved the aircraft to fly again in the U.S. late last year.

The MCAS system was initially designed to activate during certain high-speed flying conditions that airline pilots wouldn’t normally encounter. During the aircraft’s development, Boeing engineers later expanded the system’s authority to include certain low-speed conditions that would trigger it.

In chat messages previously released by congressional investigators, Mr. Forkner suggested that he hadn’t told regulators that Boeing engineers made the MCAS system more potent and that pilots would be more likely to encounter it during flight. Mr. Forkner suggested in the messages that he hadn’t known about changes to the flight-control system. “So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” he said in one 2016 message.

Around the same time, according to the indictment, Mr. Forkner contacted a senior Boeing engineer assigned to the 737 MAX program to ask about the flight conditions that would trigger MCAS. The engineer confirmed to Mr. Forkner that the system had been expanded to work in low-speed conditions, not just during certain high-speed situations, the indictment said.

The indictment alleged that Mr. Forkner could have at that point told the FAA about the change in the system but instead chose not to. A few months later, Mr. Forkner again recommended that the FAA not include a reference to the system in a report that determined how much training pilots would need to fly the new jet, the indictment said.

Prosecutors alleged that Mr. Forkner’s efforts to mislead the FAA had the effect of defrauding Boeing’s airline customers. The carriers were deprived of information about the jet that may have influenced their decisions to buy the 737 MAX, the indictment said.

Mr. Gerger has said that Mr. Forkner’s chat messages referred to problems with a simulator, not the aircraft.

Following the first crash, on Oct. 29, 2018, which killed 189 passengers and crew aboard a Lion Air jet, the FAA group that dealt with Mr. Forkner learned that MCAS might have played a role in the disaster. Another 737 MAX airliner crashed in Ethiopia on March 10, 2019, killing 157 people.

According to the indictment, Mr. Forkner knew a key Boeing objective was to secure FAA approval for a training package that wouldn’t require MAX pilots to undergo simulator training, which would be costly to the manufacturer’s airline customers.

A new type of defect on Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft surfaced recently, the latest in a series of issues that have led to a halt in deliveries. The company now has more than $25 billion of jets in its inventory. WSJ’s Andrew Tangel explains how Boeing got here. Photo: Reuters

Mr. Forkner believed he would be blamed if regulators required a greater amount and Boeing suffered financially, according to the indictment. Prosecutors cited a December 2014 email he allegedly wrote: “It was Mark, yes Mark! Who cost Boeing tens of millions of dollars!”

The Wall Street Journal has previously reported that Boeing had agreed to rebate

Southwest Airlines Co.

$1 million per MAX plane that required simulator training.

As part of Boeing’s earlier settlement with the Justice Department, the company was charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the FAA. Under terms of the settlement, Boeing will avoid prosecution on that charge—and remain eligible for federal contracts—as long as the company avoids legal trouble for a period of three years.

Boeing’s settlement with the Justice Department, which didn’t cite Mr. Forkner by name, stated that the misconduct by its former employees was “neither pervasive across the organization, nor undertaken by a large number of employees, nor facilitated by senior management.”

Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Dave Michaels at dave.michaels@wsj.com

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