There is new evidence that indicates that Boeing pilots knew about “egregious” problems with the 737 Max airplane three years ago, but federal regulators were not told about them.
Investigators maintain the plane’s new flight control system, called MCAS, is partially to blame for 737 Max crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia this year that killed 346 people. Acting on data from a single, faulty angle-of-attack sensor, MCAS repeatedly forced both planes into nosedives as the pilots struggled, but failed to regain control.
The pilots in the Indonesia crash last October did not know MCAS existed, as Boeing did not disclose any information about it in pilot manuals or in training material.
Instant messages that were newly released sent between Boeing’s then-chief technical pilot for the 737, Mark Forkner, and another technical pilot, Patrik Gustavsson, in November 2016 indicate that Forkner experienced similar problems with MCAS during a test session in a flight simulator.
NPR obtained a transcript in which Forkner writes that “there are still some real fundamental issues” with the system that he says Boeing engineers and test pilots “claim that they are aware of.”
As the two pilots comment back and forth in the messages, Forkner says the system is “running rampant in the sim on me,” then adding, “I’m leveling off at like 4000 ft, 230 knots and the plane is trimming itself like crazy.”
Forkner calls the problem “egregious” and writes that he had “basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)” before experiencing the glitch, when he had told the FAA that MCAS was safe and did not need to be included in pilot manuals.
Later emails, also newly disclosed, show Forkner still telling the FAA that MCAS didn’t need to be covered in the manuals.
“If you read the whole chat, it is obvious that there was no ‘lie,’ ” Forkner’s lawyer, David Gerger, told news services by email on Friday. “The simulator was not reading right and had to be fixed to fly like the real plane. Mark’s career — at Air Force, at FAA, and at Boeing — was about safety. And based on everything he knew, he absolutely thought this plane was safe.”
Neither Forkner nor Gerger has responded to NPR requests for comment.