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737 Max

Damning Chat Transcripts: Did Boeing Know About the MAX’s Fatal Flaw for Two Years?

Damning Chat Transcripts: Did Boeing Know About the MAX’s Fatal Flaw for Two Years?
Jeff Edwards

Chat transcripts between Boeing 737 MAX test pilots appear to indicate that problems with the aircraft’s suspect automated safety systems were identified years before back-to-back air disasters resulted in the plane being grounded indefinitely. Company officials say that the documents have been widely misinterpreted and were promptly turned over to investigators.

Late last week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg released a statement strongly denying that the company made any attempt to conceal documents regarding the embattled 737 MAX program from lawmakers and investigators. The announcement came following the revelation that a chat transcript between test pilots from November of 2016 might have been an early indication that Boeing knew there might be issues with the aircraft’s redesigned Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

The Chat Transcripts

On Friday, October 18, 2019, Boeing’s tragic 737 MAX found its way into the news again when instant messages between Boeing 737 MAX test pilots were leaked to the press. Those leaked messages were from November 2016, and were from a former test pilot calling the 737 MAX’s software erratic.

According to Bloomberg, the instant messages between Boeing 737 MAX test pilots certainly appear damaging at first glance. Former Boeing pilot Mark Forkner reportedly used the chat feature to inform a colleague that the MCAS was “running rampant” in simulations.

Forkner’s warning came nearly two years before the fatal crashes of Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian 302. The twin air disasters created concerns about the aircraft’s redesigned MCAS anti-stall system and eventually led directly to the grounding of nearly all 737 MAX planes around the world. Speaking through his attorney, Forkner later clarified that he believed the issue to be about the simulator software and did not consider his complaints to be addressing the actual 737 MAX MCAS design.

Did Boeing Know?

In his initial, October 18th statement, Boeing’s CEO said that they knew about the pilot’s messages at least as early as “earlier this year” and that they gave the documents to the “appropriate investigating authority.”  He added that, “Yesterday,”–the day before the document was publicly leaked–as part of Boeing’s cooperation with the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, they handed over the   “document containing statements by a former Boeing employee.”

After that, the timeline becomes harder to pin down. But, in that same statement, Muilenburg did characterize the transcripts in question as widely misunderstood and said that the documents were not only turned over to investigators initially but were also resubmitted to congressional investigators again even more recently.

This Is About the Simulator

In a subsequent statement on Sunday, October 20, Boeing backed up Muilenburg’s position that the chat transcripts were properly disclosed and that the instant messages have been widely misinterpreted in media accounts. The company says that the archived chat record refers to issues with the flight simulator specifically and does not in any way indicate that there were known issues with the now suspect MCAS.

“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,” the company said.  “And we especially regret the difficulties that the release of this document has presented for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 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 a 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.”

It has been suggested by some, including The New York Times writer-at-large and resident aviation expert William Langewiesche, that the Boeing 737 MAX program is suffering from a perception problem and political challenges rather than software issues or design flaws. If this is truly the case, then these recent revelations and Boeing’s failure to get ahead of what is increasingly being framed as a scandal, won’t improve the 737 MAX’s chances of being re-certified in the near future.

View Comments (10)

10 Comments

  1. edgewood49

    October 21, 2019 at 6:11 pm

    At some point point in time someone or something will finally come forward and the real truth will be known. The real question is how high did the cover up go? Certainly heads need to roll the sooner the better we can get on with cleaning up this mess which has forever tainted the US plane manufacturing and more importantly safety standards here in the US. As a former USAF I am disgusted

  2. DeltaFlyer123

    October 23, 2019 at 4:48 am

    Even with this “erratic behavior”, the fall-back is to turn the system off. It’s as easy as flipping a couple or switches. The pilots should have been able to do that, which would have basically turned MCAS off.
    As for this new “revelation”, lots of things go wrong during a flight test campaign, and are fixed. That’s why we do flight tests (and iron bird tests and thousands of other tests.
    If these employees knew about problems, it was incumbent upon them to have them fixed – that’s what they’re paid to do.

  3. alexmyboy

    October 23, 2019 at 4:55 am

    we don’t need regulations, we can trust businesses to do the right thing. Uh, No!

  4. mbgaskins

    October 23, 2019 at 6:16 am

    I an American citizen I am really disgusted with those who continue to bash Boeing and the Max.

    The truth has been revealed and it was ill equipped, inexperienced pilots who panicked and froze. Those people should never have been pilots in the first place.

    Could the software have been better? Sure. Airbus planes have had similar issues but the pilots knew how to handle them so there were no crashes. The software was updated and solved the problem. This would have been the same for the Max except for incompetence in flying the plane.

    I would get on any major US carrier flying the Max tomorrow. It is all about the piloting and not the plane.

  5. kc1174

    October 23, 2019 at 7:23 am

    “Forkner later clarified that he believed the issue to be about the simulator software and did not consider his complaints to be addressing the actual 737 MAX MCAS design”.
    Nice of you to add that to the piece as it contradicts the “damning” part of the headline and – well debunks the whole headline as the answer to your question (which I’m guessing is rhetorical) is no.
    Click bait…

  6. ursine1

    October 23, 2019 at 10:59 am

    Those thinking that MCAS can be easily turned off, or still blaming the pilots, might want to do a bit more research.

  7. pmiranda

    October 23, 2019 at 11:33 am

    This is looking more like no new news, given the timeline places the texts as during simulator testing, and some outlets are now reporting MCAS wasn’t even active in the simulated flights.
    To defend the deceased pilots, while better training would have helped, I understand the only way to disable MCAS is to disable electric trim, which means you can’t un-trim the MCAS commanded input unless you first reduce thrust to unload the trim tabs enough to move them with the manual wheel. And reducing thrust goes against one’s natural instinct when losing altitude.
    Bottom line: Boeing should have been more clear about MCAS behavior and made redundant control paths and warning systems mandatory, but the airlines didn’t want to incur any extra equipment or training costs so Boeing caved to pressure to make the aircraft “fool proof” on the cheap.
    As a passenger, I’m confident that when the MAX returns to service MCAS won’t be an issue.

  8. IanFromHKG

    October 23, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    mbgaskins, you say: “I an American citizen I am really disgusted with those who continue to bash Boeing and the Max.The truth has been revealed and it was ill equipped, inexperienced pilots who panicked and froze. Those people should never have been pilots in the first place.”

    Not sure what your citizenship statement does other than reveal an apparent bias. However, the truth has indeed been revealed, in numerous statements by senior Boeing executives that mistakes were made at the design AND manufacturing stage – take a look here: https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=beogin+ceo+admits+mcas+problem&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

    Perhaps your apparent bias is a real bias?

    Even pilots disagree with your assessment – notably the famous Capt. Sullenberger (you should approve of him, he’s American, which apparently makes a difference in your assessments): https://www.npr.org/2019/06/19/734248714/pilots-criticize-boeing-saying-737-max-should-never-have-been-approved

    Even Boeing’s CEO (also President, Director, and – until recently when he was forced to relinquish the post – Chairman) accepts that Boeing screwed up – you can see his YouTube apology here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvjoaqpZjIc&list=PL3ZQ5CpNulQkQghST6HkKnQDEAW7draMk&index=2. Perhaps this escaped your biased attention?

    As to your statement that you would get on any major US carrier flying the Max tomorrow – well, that’s just not going to happen, is it? Because Boeing admit it isn’t safe, the FAA aren’t convinced that it is safe, the airlines don’t believe that it is safe, and the entire WORLDWIDE fleet has been grounded indefinitely.

    Don’t get me wrong – I would fly on any OTHER-generation 737 plane tomorrow – but not the MAX. And I won’t fly on it for at least two years, just as I refused to fly on the self-combusting 787 for two years. Once that period has gone by without incident, I will happily get on a MAX. I would also fly on a 787 now (my embargo has expired), or a 747, or a 777. They aren’t the best ‘planes in the sky – give me an A380 or A350 any day, they give a much better passenger experience – but I do believe they are safe and proven airframes. The MAX, however, is not, and to blame the pilots is unfair, inappropriate, and (frankly, given all the evidence to the contrary) an insult to the memory of all the people that died as a result of Boeing’s ineptitude.

  9. Sydneyberlin

    October 24, 2019 at 6:52 pm

    I’m really appalled by the continued attempts to blame the (dead!) pilots on something that was caused by Corporate greed and nothing else. This disgusts me to be quite frank.

  10. YankeeGirl226

    November 15, 2019 at 4:27 am

    As an American, I want to know what you mean by those people. These were professional pilots who took their jobs seriously. You don’t know a damn thing. You look like the type that has a problem getting your zipper down let alone having the ability to fly a plane. This is Boeing’s fault. No other way around it.

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