FORT WORTH, Texas >> A former Boeing Co. test pilot was acquitted Wednesday on felony charges of deceiving federal regulators about a key flight-control system that played a role in two deadly crashes involving 737 Max jets.
A jury in federal district court in Fort Worth deliberated less than two hours before finding Mark Forkner not guilty on four counts of wire fraud.
Prosecutors accused Forkner of misleading Federal Aviation Administration regulators about the amount of training pilots would need to fly the Max. The FAA required only brief computer-based training for pilots instead of more extensive practice in simulators that could have cost Boeing up to $1 million per plane.
Defense lawyers said Boeing engineers did not tell Forkner about changes to the flight software, known by its acronym, MCAS. The lawyers said Forkner was a scapegoat for Boeing and FAA officials who sought to avoid blame after the Max crashes, which killed 346 people.
“We are very grateful that this jury and judge were so smart, so fair, so independent, that they saw through it,” defense attorney David Gerger said after the verdict.
Justice Department spokesman Joshua Stueve said the department stands by its investigation and prosecution of the case. “While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury’s verdict,” he said.
Testimony in the trial lasted less than three days, after jury selection and opening statements by lawyers Friday evening. Forkner did not testify. Judge Reed O’Connor had instructed the jurors not to consider his silence as a sign of guilt or innocence. The defense called only one witness, a current Boeing pilot, who testified for about one hour.
Forkner was Boeing’s chief technical pilot for the 737 Max, giving him a key role in determining pilot-training requirements. Prosecutors tried to use Forkner’s internal messages to colleagues against him, particularly one in which he said he unknowingly misled regulators. Defense lawyers said Forkner’s message was a complaint about a flight simulator, not MCAS.
An FAA official who worked with Forkner, Stacey Klein, testified that Forkner lied to her that MCAS would never activate during normal airline use, only in certain high-speed situations that pilots would never encounter. Forkner’s lawyers said Boeing engineers did not tell him that the scope of the system had been expanded, and that he told Klein what he knew.
Prosecutors based the charges of wire fraud on communications that Forkner had with the FAA and with two big Boeing customers, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. Each count carried a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
Most pilots familiar with older models of the 737 did not know about MCAS when airlines began receiving Max jets — the system was not in previous Boeing 737s. Prosecutors accused Forkner of downplaying the importance and power of the software, and it was not mentioned in aircraft manuals and pilot-training material.
In the two crashes — in Indonesia in 2018 and in Ethiopia in 2019 — MCAS automatically pointed the nose of the plane down based on faulty sensor readings, and pilots were unable to regain control.
Forkner, who worked at the FAA before joining Boeing, left the aircraft manufacturer in 2018, months before the first crash, then briefly worked at Southwest Airlines.