Ever since two Boeing 737 Max planes crashed, Boeing has been playing a frantic game of damage control. In our early reporting on this issue, we emphasized the need for deliberate analysis and evaluation rather than leaping to conclusions. Nearly a year after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 slammed into the ground, killing all aboard, it’s evident that the rot at Boeing went very deep indeed.
The company has turned over a tranche of internal email documents that emphasize just how ugly the situation got — and how much Boeing knew about it. I’ve personally read all 117 pages of Boeing emails and created a series of images to illustrate what, exactly, Boeing employees were talking about. In the documents, which cover a period ranging from 2013 – 2019, employees discussed various aspects of the situation. “Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t,” one employee wrote to another in a February 2018 message. The second employee agrees that they wouldn’t, either.
In another case, one employee remarked that it (the 737 MAX) is “such a shitshow.” A second employee agrees, saying they’d be shocked if the FAA passes the aircraft.
The FAA has also been upset about emails showing that employees were aware that the 737 Max simulator was in bad shape and worrying about how to clear that issue with regulators.
We’ve heard about problems with the 737 Max simulators before — in October, evidence surfaced that one of Boeing’s test pilots had raised serious concerns about the safety of the 737 Max and the simulator’s performance, before admitting he had inadvertently lied to the FAA. That didn’t stop the pilot, Mark Forkner, from requesting that the FAA allow Boeing to remove any mention of MCAS in the 737 Max pilot’s manual. The FAA, believing that MCAS only could activate remotely (and also believing that it functioned differently than it did), approved the request. Boeing employees referred to “Jedi mind tricking” regulators into believing they didn’t need to engage in an in-depth evaluation of the 737 Max.
Boeing Actively Discouraged Simulator Training, Declared It Would Strong Arm Regulators
This email, from 2015, illustrates who Boeing believed would control the regulation of the aircraft: Boeing. All of the emails shown as being from the 737 Chief Technical Pilot are from Forkner.
Forkner was critical to the effort to emphasize that the 737 Max and 737 NG had no differences between them save for “no OFF position on the gear handle.” I’m summarizing this bit, because Forkner wrote a number of these emails to various airlines, for example: “Boeing does not understand what is to be gained by a 3 hour simulator session, when the procedures are essentially the same.” When airlines specifically requested information on simulator time, Forkner pushed back on this option. In another email, he writes: “A simulator training requirement would be quite burdensome to your operation,” and “There is absolutely no reason to require your pilots to require a Max simulator.” These quotes are on pages 59 and 60 / 117 in the Scribd document. The phrase “Jedi mind trick” seems to be one that Forkner loves; you’ll see it used repeatedly in other internal emails identified as being from him.
I’m going to speed up at this point, because honestly, there are 117 pages of this sort of thing.
Boeing Employees Declare They Require Forgiveness From God
I’m not even being snarky.
Boeing Employees Would Rather Quit Than Lie to the FAA
Boeing Employees ‘Produced’ Emails to Make Regulators Feel Stupid About Requiring Training
Some Boeing Employees Were Aware of Problems and Tried to Raise the Alarm
Next, I’m going to include some snippets of different conversations here. These conversations were between two unnamed Boeing employees. It’s not clear if it’s always the same two employees talking or not. Each of these images should be read independently.
It’s not clear that this is in reference to canceling the entire 737 Max project or pausing the ramp to fix issues and bring the plane into a better position for eventual launch.
Boeing Employees Thought the Aircraft Was Designed By Clowns Being Supervised By Monkeys
Ethical Boeing Employees Didn’t Feel Like There Were Very Many of Them
This one builds on a screenshot I showed you before, but it gives a good deal of additional context around the email. Unfortunately, expanding context doesn’t make the situation any better. In fact, it makes it worse. This one is a two-parter. There’s a brief overlap where I clipped, to show that I captured the entire section.
The FAA Is Incompetent (or Possibly Bribed) and Boeing Is a Company of Liars
This request appears to be about the 777, not the 737, based on the subject line of the email, which reads,”- 777 ECL COC Update request”). But it still raises serious questions about how the FAA does its job and the degree of closeness between the FAA and Boeing. It would be very interesting to know why the email opens with a discussion of what a brown envelope can achieve. The implication of the statement as written is that Boeing straight-up bribed the FAA to overlook problems.
I asked a pilot friend of mine, who confirmed he didn’t know “brown envelope” as any kind of aviation slang or reference. That isn’t to say “brown envelope” doesn’t have a meaning. “Brown envelope journalism” is defined as “a practice whereby monetary inducement is given to journalists to make them write a positive story or kill a negative story. The name is derived from cash inducements hidden in brown envelopes and given to journalists during press briefings.” I’m not sure I’ve heard the term in the US, but it’s widely used in both the UK and Nigeria. And Boeing’s top-level employees clearly travel a great deal, as a number of emails in this tranche refer to various traveling schedules and trips around the world.
It’s possible that the author of the post was simply joking. I’ve made similar jokes before to people, about taking my AMD-funded limo to my Intel-funded jet so I can relax on my Nvidia-purchased private island. The problem is, it’s also possible to read the first paragraph as a series of statements: The 777 “isn’t anywhere near as good as it would appear to be.” Why not? Because the FAA “were neither thorough nor demanding and failed to write up many issues.” Why did they do this? “Amazing what a brown envelope can achieve.”
Could that be a joke? Absolutely. It could also be an admission that the FAA was bribed to look the other way and “miss” problems on the 777 by failing to document them in its report. It’s impossible to separate these questions from the fact that the FAA knew the 737 Max was dangerous after the first crash (but kept it flying) and then refused to immediately yank the aircraft after the second crash, doing so only after significant international pressure from other regulatory agencies. The fact that the FAA failed to act even after two crashes has been a topic of interest for investigators. The 737 Max may not be the only aircraft impacted by lax or corrupt regulation.
Everything Is Broken
This last one sorta wraps everything up, at least according to one unnamed Boeing employee. Based on the text color, it could be Forkner, but just because he uses that color in other emails doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be him using it here.
When the 737 Max jets went down in Ethiopia and Singapore, some people blamed pilot error. Some assumed the aircraft were in poor condition. A lot of people wanted to hand Boeing a pass, based on the company’s long, generally excellent track record.
It is clear beyond doubt now, if it was ever doubted before, just how far-ranging and deep the rot went in the 737 Max’s design. Boeing employees knew it — and lied. They lied, and used “Jedi mind tricks,” and sent messages to airlines and regulatory agencies fighting back, hard, against anyone performing training on a 737 Max. They may have bribed an FAA official, but, even assuming that didn’t happen, there’s no evidence of appropriate oversight. Boeing employees worry about what regulators will do in these 117 pages of email, but there’s no sign that they actually put an effort into building a quality plane. The 737 Max was conceived, from the beginning, as an aircraft that would be economical. Any attempt to raise safety concerns that could require additional simulation training was rejected.
Boeing has announced it will now require simulation training for all pilots who wish to fly the 737 Max.
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