3 min read.Updated: 19 Oct 2019, 12:43 AM ISTAlan Levin,Ryan Beene, Bloomberg
MCAS automatically pushes down the plane’s nose if it senses it’s in danger of an aerodynamic stall
Malfunctions of the system have been blamed for a pair of fatal crashes over the past year
A high-ranking Boeing Co. pilot working on the 737 Max expressed misgivings three years ago during its certification about a feature since implicated in two fatal crashes, calling its handling performance “egregious," according to 2016 instant messages.
The Federal Aviation Administration said Boeing alerted the Transportation Department late Thursday of instant messages between two employees of the planemaker, the FAA said Friday. The U.S. regulator said Boeing Co. was aware of the communication for months.
“The FAA finds the substance of the document concerning," the agency said in a statement. “The FAA is also disappointing that Boeing did not bring this document to our attention immediately upon its discovering."
The November 2016 instant messages, which were reviewed by Bloomberg News, were exchanges between between Mark Forkner, then Boeing’s chief technical pilot for the 737, and another 737 technical pilot, Patrik Gustavsson.
In the messages, Forkner described his alarm at simulator tests in which he encountered troubling behavior of the automated flight control system implicated in the two fatal crashes.
Boeing had earlier assured the aviation regulator that the feature known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System was benign and didn’t need to be included in the plane’s flight manuals, according to a person familiar with the issue.
Forkner told Gustavsson that MCAS was “running rampant in the sim on me," referring to simulator tests of the aircraft.
Forkner expressed concern that he may have unknowingly misled the FAA. “So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)," he wrote.
MCAS automatically pushes down the plane’s nose if it senses it’s in danger of an aerodynamic stall. Malfunctions of the system have been blamed for a pair of fatal crashes over the past year, resulting in the worldwide grounding of Boeing’s best-selling jet.
“I’m levelling [sic] off at like 4000 ft, 230 knots and the plane is trimming itself like craxy [sic]," Forkner said. “I’m like, WHAT?"
The agency said it was turning over the documents to Congressional investigators.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson sent a terse letter to Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg on Friday demanding more information.
“I understand that Boeing discovered the document in its files months ago," Dickson said. “I expect your explanation immediately regarding the content of this document and Boeing’s delay in disclosing the document to its safety regulator."
Boeing shares fell after Reuters reported on the FAA’s comments earlier Friday. Boeing fell 3.3% to $353.20 at 1:32 p.m. in New York after sliding as much as 4.5% for the biggest intraday drop in five months. The S&P 500 Index also fell to lows of the day about the same time on news that Vice President Mike Pence will give a speech on U.S.-China policy next week.
“Over the past several months, Boeing has been voluntarily cooperating with the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s investigation into the 737 MAX," company spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in an email.
“As part of that cooperation, today we brought to the Committee’s attention a document containing statements by a former Boeing employee. We will continue to cooperate with the Committee as it continues its investigation. And we will continue to follow the direction of the FAA and other global regulators, as we work to safely return the 737 MAX to service."
A lawyer representing Boeing in the matter, McGuireWoods LLC’s Richard Cullen, said in a statement that: “The Boeing Company timely produced the Mark Forkner IM document to the appropriate authorities."
The communciations between the pilots suggest MCAS was performing in simulator tests in ways they hadn’t expected.
After Forkner said he was concerned about misleading regulators, Gustavsson replied that “it wasn’t a lie, no one told us that was the case."
“I don’t know, the test pilots have kept us out of the loop," Gustavsson said.
Forkner replied, “they’re all so damn busy, and getting pressure from the program."