Boeing’s MAX crisis deepened Friday with new controversy around an exchange of bantering texts between senior pilots that suggested Boeing knew as early as 2016 about the perils of a new flight-control system later implicated in two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.
The exchange of messages in 2016 between the two lead technical pilots on the Boeing 737 MAX program was released Friday after regulators blew up at the company for belatedly disclosing the matter. The messages reveal that the flight-control system, which two years later went haywire on the crashed flights, was behaving aggressively and strangely in the pilots’ simulator sessions.
In the exchange, one of the pilots states that given the behavior of the system, known as a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), he had unknowingly lied to the FAA about its capabilities.
“It’s running rampant in the sim on me,” 737 Chief Technical Pilot Mark Forkner wrote to Patrik Gustavsson, who would succeed him as chief technical pilot. “I’m levelling off at like 4000 ft, 230 knots and the plane is trimming itself like craxy. I’m like, WHAT?” (Spelling errors in the original.)
“Granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious,” Forkner added.
The exchange shows that the aggressive behavior of MCAS was known to Boeing even ahead of flight testing, and that these top Boeing pilots were caught off guard by the system’s power.
The emails show how Forkner, though he had experienced this errant behavior of MCAS, later urged the FAA to keep information about the system out of pilot manuals and MAX training courses.
Boeing has known about the messages for many months. It provided the exchange in February — the month before the second crash in Ethiopia — to the Department of Justice, which had opened a criminal investigation into the development of the 737 MAX, according to a person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity about confidential legal proceedings.
However, Boeing only provided the messages on Thursday to the chief attorney for the Department of Transportation, the federal agency that includes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
That delay prompted FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to write a short, sharply worded letter to Muilenburg Friday, declaring, “I expect your explanation immediately regarding the content of this document and Boeing’s delay in disclosing the document to the safety regulator.”
“Are you OK with us removing all reference to MCAS from the FCOM (Flight Crew Operating Manual) and the training as we discussed, as it’s completely transparent to the flight crew and only operates WAY outside of the normal operating envelope,” Forkner wrote.
Having convinced the FAA of that, Forkner then traveled the world talking to foreign regulators also working to certify the MAX. On Nov. 3, 2016, he wrote an email to an FAA official, joking that he was “doing a bunch of traveling … jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by FAA.”
In a separate email to an FAA official in mid-January 2017 — two months after the text exchange when he had noted the “egregious” behavior of MCAS — Forkner suggests two changes to the “differences training” that pilots were to undergo in order to move from flying the prior 737 model to the MAX.
The first change was to delete a reference to MCAS.
Safety, schmafety, we have planes to sell.
If someone does not face criminal charges over this, something is profoundly wrong with our justice system.