Boeing Max aircraft in storage
Grounded Max aircraft, stored at Boeing Field in Washington state. (Photo: Barry Ambrose)

CEO Pleads Initial Ignorance of Text Message Details

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg testified to Congress on October 29 that he did not become aware until recent weeks of the details in instant messages and emails exchanged between two of his company’s employees suggesting the chief technical pilot encountered serious problems with the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) in the 737 Max during simulator sessions. Despite accepting “ownership” and accountability for the series of events leading to the pair of crashes that claimed the lives of 346 people, Muilenburg received criticism from several lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Capitol Hill. They questioned why he did not know of the substance of the communications until several months after they appeared in documents filed with the Justice Department in response to the ongoing investigation into the October 2018 crash of Lion Air Flight 610.

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An Indonesian safety committee reserved much of its criticism for the design and certification of elements of the 737 Max flight deck.

In the instant messages, the chief technical pilot in question, Mark Forkner, described a scenario in which he witnessed the MCAS “running rampant” during a November 2016 simulator session, some four months before the Max received its certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. Subsequently, an email from Forkner calls for removing any mention of the MCAS from the flight crew operating manual.

Muilenburg’s recent testimony that he did not know the details of the communications did not go uncensured by Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker and others on the committee. “Was it your decision to wait months before disclosing this to the FAA?” asked Wicker. Muilenburg replied that he relied on the company’s lawyers to provide the information “to the appropriate authorities.”

For his part, Texas Senator Ted Cruz called Muilenburg’s testimony “quite dismaying” and the exchange between Forkner and technical pilot Patrik Gustavsson “stunning.”

“What I find truly stunning is that Boeing handed over this exchange to the Department of Justice in February,” said Cruz. “In March, I chaired a hearing of the aviation subcommittee on these two crashes. Boeing did not see fit to give this committee that exchange, nor did Boeing give it to the FAA or the Department of Transportation.

“You had your lawyers look over this document...Mr. Muilenburg, how in the hell did nobody bring this to your attention in February, when you produced this to the Department of Justice? How did you just read this a couple of weeks ago?... How did your team not put it in front of you, run in with their hair on fire, saying, ‘We’ve got a real problem here.’?"

Muilenburg responded that Boeing still does not know exactly what Forkner meant by the exchange because he no longer works for the company and the company hadn’t gotten to chance to talk with him. “His lawyer has suggested he was talking about a simulator that was in development in that time period; that was where he was working; that could be the case,” said Muilenburg.

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