The two lead technical pilots on the Boeing 737 Max program exchanged bantering texts in 2016 revealing that the plane’s flight control system, which two years later went haywire on the two crash flights in Indonesia and Ethiopia, was behaving aggressively and strangely in their simulator sessions.
Boeing has known about these messages for many months. It provided the texts in February 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 provided the messages only on Thursday to the chief attorney for the Department of Transportation, the federal agency that includes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to the person.
That delay prompted FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to write an angry letter Friday to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg about the implications of the text messages.
In the exchange, one of the pilots states that he unknowingly lied to the FAA about the details of the system, known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
“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 reveals that the aggressive behavior of MCAS was known even ahead of flight test and that these top Boeing pilots were not fully clued in as to the system’s power.
In a statement, the FAA said Boeing alerted the Department of Transportation to the existence of the text messages late on Thursday, stating that the company had discovered the document some months ago.
In his short but sharply worded letter, FAA Administrator Dickson told Muilenburg: “I expect your explanation immediately regarding the content of this document and Boeing’s delay in disclosing the document to the safety regulator.”
According to the person familiar with the matter, after Boeing had given the messages to the Department of Justice, the company then spent months trying without success to get Forkner or his attorney to discuss the meaning of the texts.
Boeing did not provide the messages to the FAA because the criminal investigation presumably involved dealings between Boeing and FAA over the certification of the jetliner, according to the person.
Boeing said Friday that Muilenburg called Dickson to respond to the concerns raised in his letter.
News of the message exchange, first reported Friday by Reuters, prompted Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to issue a statement condemning “the outrageous instant message chain between two Boeing employees indicating Boeing withheld damning information from the FAA.”
In the text exchange, Forkner tells Gustavsson that MCAS is now active down to Mach 0.2 — meaning at low speed, not just in the high speed maneuver for which it was originally designed.
He adds that it will now be necessary to update the description of the system, presumably referring to material Boeing provides the FAA.
“So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” he texted.
What’s now apparent from this 2016 exchange is that Boeing’s chief technical pilot on the Max program was equally in the dark, discovering this change in the system’s behavior only when it initiated nose-down movements in the simulator when he wasn’t expecting it.
“Why are we just now hearing about this?” Forkner asks in a text.
Gustavsson responds: “The test pilots have kept us out of the loop.”
Forkner left Boeing in July 2018, before the two crashes. He’s now flying as a first officer with Southwest Airlines. Gustavsson is still 737 chief technical pilot at Boeing.
The news drove Boeing’s stock down almost 7% Friday, from $369 when the market opened to $344 at close.