E-mails reveal Boeing employees knew about 737 Max problems
Internal documents released to Federal Aviation Administration highlight flight simulator issues and how Boeing evaded scrutiny from regulators
Chicago/Washington — Boeing released a new batch of internal messages in which company employees discussed deep unease with the 737 Max and problems in flight simulators used to train pilots on the new jetliner, while also trying to avert greater regulator scrutiny of the plane.
“This airplane is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys,” said one company pilot in messages to a colleague in 2016, which Boeing disclosed publicly late Thursday. The company had already provided the documents to legislators and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who are investigating the 737 Max and the process that cleared it to fly.
The communications threaten to upend Boeing’s efforts to rebuild public trust in the 737 Max, which has been grounded since March after two deadly crashes. That will add to the hurdles for David Calhoun, a longtime board member who will take over on January 13 as CEO from Dennis Muilenburg, who was ousted last month.
“These newly released e-mails are incredibly damning,” said US Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs a committee that is investigating Boeing and the Max.
“They paint a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go to in order to evade scrutiny from regulators, flight crews, and the flying public, even as its own employees were sounding alarms internally,” DeFazio said in a statement.
Boeing, which provided the documents under pressure from US legislators, apologised and said it was committed to “full transparency” with the FAA.
“We regret the content of these communications, and apologise to the FAA, Congress, our airline customers, and to the flying public for them,” the Chicago-based company said in a statement. “We have made significant changes as a company to enhance our safety processes, organisations, and culture.”
In a statement, the FAA said it has reviewed the Boeing messages and found that “nothing in the submission pointed to any safety risks that were not already identified as part of the ongoing review of proposed modifications to the aircraft.”
The internal documents — consisting of more than 100 pages of messages, e-mails and memos — were released days after Boeing said it had reversed its earlier opposition to requiring Max pilots to undergo simulator training before the grounded plane resumes commercial flight.
One of the company’s big selling points with customers had been that pilots certified for an earlier generation of 737 jets only needed a short computer course to brush up their skills for the Max. Those assurances helped make the Max Boeing’s best-selling jetliner.
The messages shared by the company at times reveal the pressure on employees — and customers — to avoid the additional training. They also highlighted the technical glitches that bedevilled Max simulators after the jet began flying commercially in mid-2017. Boeing said that “any potential safety deficiencies identified in the documents have been addressed.”
In one exchange about the Max flight simulators, an employee said, “honesty is the only way in this job — integrity when lives are on the line on the aircraft and training programs shouldn’t be taken with a pinch of salt. Would you put your family on a MAX simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”
The missives were drafted by a small number of employees, primarily technical pilots and personnel working to develop and qualify the Max simulators, a Boeing official said. While all names were redacted, the company confirmed that some involved are the “same individuals” behind incendiary e-mails revealed in 2019.
‘Jedi mind tricks’
In messages disclosed in October, Mark Forkner, the former 737 Max chief technical pilot, bragged of employing “Jedi mind tricks” on regulators and described problems in a 737 Max simulator. In instant messages, Forkner told a colleague that MCAS was “running rampant in the sim on me,” referring to simulator tests of the aircraft. “Granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious.”
Those messages, shared early in the year with federal investigators — but not the FAA — sparked fury among legislators who later unloaded on Muilenburg during congressional hearings that followed their release.
The latest batch of communications includes a 2017 e-mail in which the chief technical pilot on the 737 crowed to Boeing colleagues, “Looks like my jedi mind trick worked again!” Attached was a forwarded e-mail exchange in which the pilot warned an unnamed recipient against offering simulator training for 737 Max pilots, pushing instead for the computer-based course that regulators had already approved for pilots transitioning to Max from earlier 737 models.
“I am concerned that if [redacted] chooses to require a Max simulator for its pilots beyond what all other regulators are requiring that it will be creating a difficult and unnecessary training burden for your airline, as well as potentially establish a precedent in your region for other Max customers,” the Boeing pilot wrote in the forwarded message.
An unidentified Boeing employee in a different text message exchange brags about swaying India’s regulator “to make them feel stupid about trying to require any additional training requirements.”
Added the sender: “I just Jedi mind tricked this [sic] fools. I should be given $1,000 every time I take one of these calls. I save this company a sick amount of $$$$.”
In another 2017 e-mail, the 737 chief technical pilot again expressed resistance to simulator training for pilots transitioning from the older 737 NG family to the Max. “Boeing will not allow that to happen. We’ll go face to face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement,” the pilot wrote.
In a 2013 memo, an employee discussed new software on the Max that would later be implicated in both crashes. The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — which was not disclosed to pilots — activated accidentally and overwhelmed a Lion Air flight crew in 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines pilots last year.
The employee recommended describing MCAS as an addition to an existing speed trim system, instead of as a new feature. “If we emphasise MCAS is a new function there may be greater certification and training impact”
In a memo on June 1, 2018, an employee vented about a culture where managers only give lip-service to quality. The sender was warning that Boeing might not be granted an extension to fix the Max simulator at London’s Gatwick airport, which would put the device at risk of losing its qualification.
“We put ourselves in this position by picking the lowest cost supplier and signing up to impossible schedules. Why did the lowest ranking and most unproven supplier receive the contract? Solely based on bottom dollar. Not just MAX but also the 777X!”
Added the employee: “I don’t know how to fix these things ... it’s systematic. It’s culture. It’s the fact that we have a senior leadership team that understand very little about the business and yet are driving us to certain objectives. Its lots of individual groups that aren’t working closely and being accountable. It exemplifies the ‘lazy B’” — the nickname the person used for Boeing.