Boeing 737 Max chief technical pilot charged with deceiving US aviation regulators over MCAS

He hasn't got $2.5bn to hand to the DoJ, unlike his bosses


A Boeing 737 Max test pilot has been charged with obstructing US aviation safety regulators, according to the US Department of Justice, and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Former 737 Max chief technical pilot Mark Forkner, 49, of Texas, has been charged with "deceiving the Federal Aviation Administration's Aircraft Evaluation Group" (AEG) and committing fraud by misleading Boeing's airline customers into believing the 737 Max was a safe aircraft.

"Forkner allegedly abused his position of trust by intentionally withholding critical information about MCAS during the FAA evaluation and certification of the 737 MAX and from Boeing's US-based airline customers," said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A Polite Jr of the Justice Department's Criminal Division in a statement.

The prosecutor claimed that Forkner had supplied the FAA with "materially false, inaccurate, and incomplete information" about MCAS, the Manoeuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. This, he said, was the root of the lack of documentation and understanding about MCAS which led to two fatal crashes.

In November 2016, the DoJ claims Forkner learned about an important change to MCAS and deliberately withheld that from the FAA's AEG, leading to safety approval reports not mentioning the software's presence.

Software that pilots didn't know about

MCAS is the 737 Max's controversial software-powered system responsible for the crashes of two 737 Maxes, killing 346 people. As chronicled here on The Register, MCAS was a software fix for the Max so the airliner's updated design could be "grandfathered" inside existing regulatory approvals for the elderly 737 design.

Boeing designed the 737 Max as a response to Airbus's competing A320neo model. To give its airliner comparable fuel economy with the Franco-German design, new engines were fitted to the 737 airframe. These changed its flying characteristics to the point where the FAA would not approve the Max for flight without requiring an expensive and lengthy certification process – or a software fix.

Thus MCAS introduced a software layer to the Max's (manual) flight control system. This included direct control of the aircraft's trim, setting how high or low its nose points during flight. Input to MCAS was made through a single angle-of-attack sensor, unlike in Airbus aircraft where three sensors' readings are used for redundancy.

In the first Max crash, the sensor in use was giving false readings that prompted MCAS to apply full nose-down trim. Unaware of what the software was doing because MCAS had not been detailed in pilot manuals, the crew were unable to recover from the fatal dive. In the second crash the pilots applied Boeing's new counter-MCAS procedure – but everyone aboard died anyway because Boeing hadn't realised that no humans were strong enough to operate the manual trim override during situations where MCAS activated.

The FAA in effect alleges that had Forkner not covered up vital information about MCAS, neither crash would have happened.

Unlike his former employer, Forkner probably doesn't have $2.5bn to give to the DoJ's lawyers so the prosecution can magically disappear be resolved. He is due to appear in court today.

While new procedures and system redundancies have been introduced to mitigate MCAS, Boeing is still hoping airlines start placing more orders for the jets.

We asked Boeing to comment. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • India reveals home-grown server that won't worry the leading edge

    And a National Blockchain Strategy that calls for gov to host BaaS

    India's government has revealed a home-grown server design that is unlikely to threaten the pacesetters of high tech, but (it hopes) will attract domestic buyers and manufacturers and help to kickstart the nation's hardware industry.

    The "Rudra" design is a two-socket server that can run Intel's Cascade Lake Xeons. The machines are offered in 1U or 2U form factors, each at half-width. A pair of GPUs can be equipped, as can DDR4 RAM.

    Cascade Lake emerged in 2019 and has since been superseded by the Ice Lake architecture launched in April 2021. Indian authorities know Rudra is off the pace, and said a new design capable of supporting four GPUs is already in the works with a reveal planned for June 2022.

    Continue reading
  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021