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Former Boeing test pilot is facing charges connected to the 737 Max jet


A federal grand jury has indicted a former chief technical pilot at Boeing. And he appears in federal court today. He's facing charges that he deceived safety regulators about a key system in the 737 Max airplane. That system is blamed in crashes of 737 Max jets in Indonesia and Ethiopia, where a total of 346 people were killed. NPR's David Schaper is covering the 737 Max story. David, who is the pilot who's been indicted? What was his role at Boeing in developing the 737 Max?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Yeah, A, 49-year-old Mark Forkner was the chief technical pilot. So he worked with Boeing's engineers as they developed the complex systems that were used to fly the plane. He tested how the plane would fly in flight simulators. And then he would provide technical analysis and data to the FAA as they evaluated and certified the plane. So he had a very key role in the development and the - ultimately, the certification of this plane.

MARTÍNEZ: What do prosecutors say Forkner did?

SCHAPER: Well, the indictment accuses Forkner of providing the FAA with false, inaccurate and incomplete information about a new automated flight control system on the 737 Max called MCAS. It's a system designed to make sure that the plane isn't pitched up too high. And Forkner described it as relatively benign. And prosecutors say he convinced regulators that it didn't even need to be mentioned in key FAA documents, in pilot manuals and in pilot training materials. But the system really was quite powerful. In both crashes, the faulty system repeatedly kept forcing the planes into nosedives that the pilots could not pull out of. And in the first crash, they didn't even know the system was there. In internal company messages between employees, Forkner often mocked FAA regulators and admitted to deceiving them. In one exchange with a colleague, he even admitted that he had trouble controlling the plane himself in a flight simulator.

MARTÍNEZ: Why would Forkner do this?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, the prosecutors say that the motive here was to save money and increase profits for Boeing. Boeing was trying to rush development of the 737 Max to compete with a new plane from Airbus. And one of the major selling points it was using - the company was using was that it would feel just like flying previous versions of the 737, and therefore would require very new - little new pilot training. And pilots would not need training in a simulator. That can actually be quite expensive for an airline.

MARTÍNEZ: If Boeing made out here - they're the ultimate beneficiary - why isn't Boeing itself facing charges?

SCHAPER: Well, earlier this year, back in January, Boeing reached a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department, in which the company acknowledged that certain employees, including Forkner, misread - misled regulators about the safety of the 737 Max. And as part of the deal, Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion in fines in compensation to airlines and in compensation to the families of the passengers who died in the crashes. And that, essentially, ended the criminal investigation of the company's actions. One of the reasons Boeing was keen to do that is because if they - if the company was convicted, it could no longer have any federal contracts. And as we know, Boeing is a huge defense contractor with the federal government.

Now, the families of the victims in the crashes are not really satisfied with the charges against Forkner, according to the lead attorney for many of the families who have filed lawsuits against Boeing. He calls this indictment a corporate whitewash and says the corporate greed goes far beyond this one chief pilot at the company. He is urging the Justice Department to go much further in its criminal investigation.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's David Schaper. David, thanks.

SCHAPER: Thanks so much, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.