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Ex-Boeing 737 MAX chief technical pilot indicted for fraud

An employee walks past a Boeing 737 Max aircraft seen parked at the Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Washington, US January 10, 2020. (Reuters photo)

A former chief technical pilot for Boeing Co. has been charged with fraud for deceiving safety regulators who were evaluating the company's 737 MAX jet which was later involved in two deadly crashes.

Mark Forkner, 49, deceived the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) while it was first certifying the 737 Max jet, the US Justice Department said Thursday.

Forkner was indicted on six counts of scheming to defraud Boeing's US-based airline customers to obtain tens of millions of dollars for Boeing.

He deceived the FAA to make sure that it did not require pilots who would be flying the 737 Max to receive more expensive flight simulator training if they already had been trained on earlier versions of the 737, according to the indictment.

The ability to have 737 pilots fly the Max without extra flight simulator training was one of the selling points that Boeing made to its airline customers.

Forkner provided the FAA Aircraft Evaluation Group with "materially false, inaccurate, and incomplete information" about a new part of the flight controls for the aircraft.

The system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) is a software feature designed to automatically push the airplane’s nose down in certain conditions.

According to prosecutors, because of Forkner’s “alleged deception,” the MCAS was not mentioned in key FAA documents, pilot manuals or pilot-training material supplied to airlines.

The flight-control system automatically pushed down the noses of Max jets that crashed in 2018 in Indonesia, and 2019 in Ethiopia. The pilots tried in vain to regain control, but both planes went into nosedives minutes after taking off.

The two crashes killed 346 people, led to the FAA's grounding the plane for 19 months, and cost the company over $20 billion.

"In an attempt to save Boeing money, Forkner allegedly withheld critical information from regulators," said Chad Meacham, the acting US attorney for Northern 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. The Department of Justice will not tolerate fraud -- especially in industries where the stakes are so high."

Forkner is expected to make his first appearance in court on Friday in Fort Worth. If convicted, he could face a sentence of up to 100 years in prison.

In January, Boeing agreed to pay over $2.5 billion in fines and compensation after reaching a deferred prosecution agreement with the US Justice Department over the two crashes.

The agreement faulted the company's conduct and said it was holding the largest US planemaker "accountable for its employees’ criminal misconduct."

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