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If you thought, Boeing (BA) couldn’t have been in any deeper problems…. you were wrong. In a report, I wrote today and is scheduled for release in the coming days, I already marked the many facets of the crisis and that included engineering, financials, approach to safety, schedule, communications and transparency. Just hours after we submitted this report for publication, Reuters released internal messages between Boeing employees that shed a whole new light on the Boeing 737 MAX testing and it deepens the crisis for Boeing. In my view, the two-page PDF shows everything that is wrong with Boeing.

In this report, we will do a short intro on the people who appear in the messages, go through relevant passages and explain why the messages that surfaced are alarming and put things in a different perspective.

The people behind the messages

One of the people sending internal messages that have been released is Patrik Gustavsson. He previously worked for Ryanair (RYAAY) as a Technical Pilot but also held several other positions within Ryanair including roles as an instructor and examiner. In 2014, Gustavsson joined Boeing as a 737 Technical Pilot and became 737 Chief Technical Pilot in July 2018, months before the first Boeing 737 MAX would crash.

The second person is Mark A. Forkner. Forkner seems to have started his career as Chief of Ground/Flying Training/ C-17A Instructor Pilot for the US Air Force in 1994. From 2002-2008 he flew for Alaska Airlines on the MD-80 and Boeing 737 and joined Boeing as 737 Chief Technical Pilot in 2011 and left in 2018, when he left for Southwest Airlines and was succeeded by Gustavsson. Between 2008 and 2011 Forkner worked for the FAA as a Lead Planner before joining Boeing.

Forkner described himself as follows:

  • 737 First Officer for Southwest Airlines.
  • Proven leader and program manager with extensive experience executing technically complex, multi-million dollar projects.
  • Former Boeing Chief Technical Pilot of the 737, responsible for simultaneously leading the international certification of the operational and training programs for the 737MAX, Boeing’s newest aircraft, while managing the world’s largest fleet of commercial airplanes, consisting of over 500 737 customers operating more than 6,000 airplanes.
  • Subject Matter Expert in government regulatory compliance with respect to both airplane and airport certification and compatibility requirements.
  • Combat-tested veteran with more than two dozen wartime missions as a USAF C-17 Instructor Pilot, in support of multiple US war campaigns.

Given the chilling details in the internal messages claiming to be a proven leader and program manager with extensive experience executing technically complex, multi-million dollar projects borders delusional. We should also not forget that Forkner was subpoenaed and he pleaded the Fifth. I believe the internal messages dating back to 2016 clearly show why he did that.

In the exchange two other people are mentioned: Someone called Vince (we don’t exactly know who this is) and Christine. This likely is Christine Walsh who started her career at Boeing in 1989 as a Senior Engineer. From 1997 onwards she primarily worked as a test pilot. Since 2018, she is Regional Director Product Marketing.

Mind-blowing communications deepens Boeing crisis

Boeing 737 MAX Crisis Deepens

The internal messages date back to November 2016, almost 10 months after the maiden flight of the Boeing 737 MAX, 6 months before the first delivery and 3-4 months before the FAA would end up certifying the aircraft. At the time, Gustavsson was 737 Technical Pilot and Forkner was 737 Chief Technical Pilot.

The conversation between Forkner and Gustavsson starts out pretty innocent (like most conversations do), but a few minutes into the conversation Forkner says:

Oh shocker alerT [sic]! MCAS is now active down to M .2 It’s running rampant in the sim on me at least that’s what Vince thinks is happening.

To which Gustav responds:

Oh great, that means we have to update the speed trim descritpion [sic] in vol 2.

Forkner continues:

So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly).

What he exactly refers to here is not known, but it could refer to continuous trimming and/or the speed rang of the MCAS trimming operating. Either way, this part of the exchange is dubious at best and damning at worst. Forkner pleaded the fifth when subpoenaed and this could very well be the reason. That sole message shows Forkner unknowingly lied to the regulator and from the internal messages it does not become clear whether Forkner ever provided accurate information to the regulators to correct previous statements that were incorrect.

One thing we have heard for months is that Boeing’s pilots never experienced unexpected MCAS activation and nor did pilots in the West who by some are considered superior. That view…. it’s ripe for the bin now as it shows that Forkner knew about unexpected MCAS activation, but attributed it to a mistake in the simulator sftware package.

Forkner even describes the scenario:

I’m levelling off at like 4000 ft, 230 knots and the plane is trimming itself like craxy [sic] I’m like, WHAT?

To which Gustavsson responds:

That’s what I saw on sim one, but on approach I think thats [sic] wrong.

Forkner then continues to call the situation egregious. Forkner seems to have been aware of all this and his actions doesn’t seem to have gone much further than calling the MCAS trimming egregious. Forkner mentions the person called Vince will provide a spreadsheet table to show when it, supposedly MCAS, is supposed to kick and he adds the question “Why are we just now hearing about this?”

Gustavvson adds that he thinks they need aero (likely aerodynamics department) to confirm what MCAS is supposed to do. It shows the lack of transparency and oversight at Boeing and even more painfully, it shows pilots including the 737 Chief Technical Pilot had no clue what they were dealing with which was already reported by Wall Street Journal earlier this year and now confirmed by the internal message.

It gets even worse as Forker replies as follows to a remark about anybody from the team leaving:

I’d ask for a job in sales where I can just get paid to drink with customers and lie about how awesome our airplanes are

If this doesn’t show a lack of ethics in business, I don’t know what will but Forkner as the 737 Chief Pilot responsible for relaying accurate information to the FAA seems to have had no trust in the Boeing 737 MAX program but also didn’t seem to have put much effort in supplying the regulator with accurate information. Both technical pilots also seem to be confirming schedule pressure saying the test pilots, the ones actually flying the aircraft are keeping them out of the loop and Christine Walsh, the one pilot who is reportedly trying to keep in touch with the technical pilots, is busy.

Conclusion

The internal messages are less than 2 pages but they seem to confirm MCAS erroneously being triggered during the flight test phase without any fixes being applied to that. It renders the argument about Boeing having tested this aircraft thoroughly without misfiring of the MCAS occurring invalid. MCAS misfired and in part due to schedule pressure, no close coordination with flight test pilot and unawareness of potential hazards nothing was done with it. The internal messages reveal a chilling reality and that reality is that Boeing has pushed out the Boeing 737 MAX likely knowing that it misfired in the simulator. The question at this point is who was aware of this apart from Forkner, Gustavvson and probably Vince. Either way, the messages are a testimony of weak communications, oversight, system understanding and questionable ethics. If Forkner communicated the problems to Boeing and the jet maker continued pushing the schedule without making changes you can certainly conclude that Boeing put schedule before safety.

Boeing is being slammed for not handing over the communications earlier, but it should be noted that the jet maker did hand over the information in February 2019 (a month before the second MAX crash) to the Department of Justice. So Boeing has been working with the authorities on this for a long time. What the FAA seems to be disliking at present is that it took months for the communications to be handed over to the Department of Transportation as well as the FAA. Boeing won’t be getting out of this better, but I can imagine that legally there would be good reasons to hand over such communications to the DoJ and delay sending the communications to the DoT and FAA.

Currently there is mention of Forkner specifically talking about the Boeing 737 MAX simulator containing errors while the actual aircraft should be fine. Mr. Forkner did indeed point out in the exchange with Gustavsson that there were some real fundamental issues which is a comment likely refering to the simulator, but given his message about “lying to customers how great their (Boeing’s) plane is”, I have little reason to assume that Mr. Forkner truly believed the issue was related to the simulator only. In fact, months before certification such thing should not occur as Technical Pilot flying happens in the simulator, which is based on air data models from the actual aircraft and Technical Pilots play a role in the certfication process and even in the sales effort for customer demonstrations. So you can downplay the importance of the messages, fact remains is that MCAS misfired in the simulator and it was noticed and Technical Pilots play an important role in communications with regulators. Technical Pilots’ role is not limited to making sure the simulator is coded correctly, but involves support certification efforts, meeting with regulatory agencies at the executive level and  researching, editing, documenting and coordinating publication of procedures and techniques for operating Boeing aircraft.

At this point, you could say that even Boeing’s own flight test and technical pilots pilots where woefully unqualified to even test MCAS. Months before the first delivery, they had no clue how MCAS exactly worked. Yet Forkner, as the 737 Chief Technical Pilot, requested the FAA in 2017 to omit MCAS from the pilot manual. A disastrous decision that I can’t understand given that even Forkner himself does not seem to have had a sufficient understanding of MCAS functioning, not in the simulator (where he likely spent most of his time as a technical pilot) and in real-life flight. What is chilling is that MCAS seems to have misfired in the simulator and rather than it being considered an actual shortcoming of the MCAS system design, it was considered a flaw in the coding of the simulator.

The internal messages that surfaced confirm our previous view that we shared in May 2019; Boeing had six years to design the MAX, and it seems that they rushed the take-off part of the MCAS functioning more than the entire 737 MAX design. During flight tests it was found that MCAS also was required for the take off and initial climb away from the airport, and it was found that more MCAS operating range was required. It was at that point that Boeing should have realized the MCAS was now functioning during a critical phase of the flight and evaluate the MCAS design. Likely to keep the program on schedule they didn’t, and they are paying the costs for it now, not only financially… confidence in Boeing’s engineering capabilities and ethics is being eroded.

What hit the Boeing 737 MAX extremely hard is not the MCAS, it’s the thick layer of toxic decision making for which nobody takes responsibility that went unchecked and covered the Boeing 737 MAX, eventually leading to safety being compromised, leaving many stakeholders with less information than desired.

The problems with the Boeing 737 MAX go a bit deeper than one particular system. Digging deeper there is an approach to safety where risk analyses seem to fall short and nobody is taking responsibility for that for the simple reason that taking responsibility for the MCAS redesign is easier and cheaper than taking responsibility for a bad safety culture. From all the news and statements coming out lately, nothing really radiates that Boeing had safety in their mind as their utmost priority despite them claiming otherwise now. It’s not to say that Boeing workers don’t care about safety, but the oversight seems to be weak.

I think this is also a good moment to keep in mind that Airbus saw key people ((Frabice Brégier (President Airbus Commercial Aircraft), Tom Enders (CEO of Airbus), Harald Wilhelm (CFO of Airbus) and John Leahy (CCO of Airbus)) leaving as the company was facing bribery probes. What Boeing is facing is way worse: People lost their lives. With the internal messages being there “out in the open” I don’t see how key figures at Boeing, including Dennis Muilenburg, can still keep their positions within the company.

It’s not certain that these people will actually be leaving as they might be stubborn enough to remain on the board and commit themselves to improving the safety culture at Boeing. To me what clearly showed the lack in ethics is that after two accidents costing lives of all passengers and crew on board Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, the 737 Chief Technical Pilot pleads the Fifth Amendment while claiming to be a proven leader and program manager with extensive experience executing technically complex, multi-million dollar projects and we now can see [part] of his messages that were sent 3 years ago that are far from flattering. It shows a lack of ethic responsibility. While the messages that have surfaced do not put Boeing or Forkner in a good light, it is important for all facts to be considered and more importantly for Boeing to have a better oversight in the flight test program with better communications between system control engineers, flight test pilots and technical pilots and have pilots with a background in Control & Simulation involved in flight testing.

Author’s Note: From the internal messages there are some remarks that should be taken with a grain of salt. However, remarks about lying to the regulator and lying about how awesome Boeing aircraft are not in that category. It should also be noted that Mr. Forkner is indeed talking about simulator being flawed, but in the same conversation he doesn’t seem to be convinced by the quality of the Boeing product. Months before certification it shouldn’t be the case that simulators are fundamentally flawed though the final simualator software package might not be complete. The problem Boeing is facing is that Mr. Forkner, who knows the true meaning of his messages best, is unwilling to cooperate in any way with Boeing or other parties involved. At this point, even if Boeing is right that the conversation was about an imcomplete simulator software package.. it doesn’t matter, the damage has already been done as the public opinion is being formed based on news reports even before Boeing gets statements out. Over the past year, what we’ve seen is that Boeing is not managing this crisis well. Boeing has been reactionary towards news reports which gives the impression of the jet maker providing transparency only after news reports already revealed things. While it does seem everybody has made up their mind about the messages, the exact meaning is not clear but the way these two pilots are talking to each other about issues of the simulator software doesn’t give a very good impression at all. 

Boeing also sent out a press release:

CHICAGO, October 20, 2019—We understand and regret the concern caused by the release Friday of a Nov. 15, 2016 instant message involving a former Boeing employee, Mark Forkner, a technical pilot involved in the development of training and manuals.  And we especially regret the difficulties that the release of this document has presented for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other regulators.

It is unfortunate that this document, which was provided early this year to government investigators, could not be released in a manner that would have allowed for meaningful explanation.   While we have not been able to speak to Mr. Forkner directly about his understanding of the document, he has stated through his attorney that his comments reflected a reaction to a simulator program that was not functioning properly, and that was still undergoing testing.  We are continuing to investigate the circumstances of this exchange, and are committed to identifying all the available facts relating to it, and to sharing those facts with the appropriate investigating and regulatory authorities.

Boeing engaged in an extensive process with the FAA to determine pilot training requirements for the 737 MAX 8.  This process was a complex, multiyear effort that involved a large number of individuals at both Boeing and the FAA. This effort itself was just a part of a much larger regulatory process for the design, development and certification of the 737 MAX 8.

In that regulatory process, Boeing informed the FAA about the expansion of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) to low speeds, including by briefing the FAA and international regulators on multiple occasions about MCAS’s final configuration.  The process also included evaluation of MCAS in low-speed configurations for both training and certification. The simulator software used during the Nov. 15 session was still undergoing testing and qualification and had not been finalized, but it, too, provided for MCAS operation at low speed. Separately, a low-speed version of MCAS was installed on the airplanes used for training-related flight testing that the FAA administered in August 2016. And FAA personnel also observed the operation of MCAS in its low-speed configuration during certification flight testing, beginning in August 2016 and continuing through January 2017.

We understand entirely the scrutiny this matter is receiving, and are committed to working with investigative authorities and the U.S. Congress as they continue their investigations.

We are deeply saddened and have been humbled by these accidents, and are fully committed to learning from them.  We have developed improvements to the 737 MAX that will ensure that accidents like these can never happen again, and are committed to continuing to work closely with the FAA and global regulators to ensure the MAX’s safe return to service.

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