FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — A judge has tossed two of six fraud counts against a former Boeing pilot involved in evaluating the troubled Boeing 737 Max jetliner.
A federal judge in Fort Worth on Tuesday dismissed, on technical grounds, counts that accused Mark A. Forkner of making and using “a materially false writing… concerning an aircraft part,” in violation of federal law.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor denied, however, Forker’s attorneys’ request for dismissal of four other wire fraud counts for not stating a case.
Forkner, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, is scheduled to go on trial March 7.
A federal indictment accuses Forkner, 50, of deceiving regulators about a critical system that played a role in two crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets that killed 346 people.
Prosecutors said that because of Forkner’s alleged deception, pilot manuals and training materials did not mention the system because of Forkner’s alleged deception.
The flight-control system in question activated erroneously and pushed down the noses of Max jets that crashed in 2018 in Indonesia and 2019 in Ethiopia. The pilots tried unsuccessfully to regain control, but both planes went into nosedives minutes after taking off.
Forkner was Boeing’s chief technical pilot on the Max program. Prosecutors said that Forkner learned about an important change to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System flight-control system in 2016 but withheld the information from the FAA. That led the agency to delete reference to MCAS from a technical report and, in turn, it didn’t appear in pilot manuals. Most pilots didn’t know about MCAS until after the first crash.
Prosecutors suggested that Forkner downplayed the system’s power to avoid a requirement that pilots undergo extensive and expensive retraining, which would increase training costs for airlines. Congressional investigators suggested additional training would have added $1 million to the price of each plane.
Forkner told another Boeing employee in 2016 that MCAS was “egregious” and “running rampant” when he tested it in a flight simulator, but he didn’t tell that to the FAA.
“So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” Forkner wrote in a message that became public in 2019.
Forkner, who lives in a Fort Worth suburb, joined Southwest Airlines after leaving Boeing but left the airline about a year ago.
Chicago-based Boeing agreed to a $2.5 billion settlement to end a Justice Department investigation into the company’s actions. The government agreed to drop a criminal charge of conspiracy against Boeing after three years if the company carries out terms of the January 2020 settlement. The settlement included a $243.6 million fine, nearly $1.8 billion for airlines that bought the plane, and $500 million for a fund to compensate families of the passengers killed.
Dozens of families of passengers are suing Boeing in federal court in Chicago.
Crash investigations highlighted the role of MCAS but also pointed to mistakes by the airlines and pilots. Max jets were grounded worldwide for more than a year and a half. The FAA approved the plane to fly again in late 2020 after Boeing made changes to MCAS.