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Boeing suspends co-workers of pilot at centre of 737 MAX scrutiny

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Boeing Co put three employees who worked with the former chief technical pilot of the 737 Max on administrative leave as a federal grand jury investigates whether he intentionally misled the Federal Aviation Administration about a software system tied to two deadly crashes, people familiar with the matter said.

[SEATTLE ] Boeing Co put three employees who worked with the former chief technical pilot of the 737 Max on administrative leave as a federal grand jury investigates whether he intentionally misled the Federal Aviation Administration about a software system tied to two deadly crashes, people familiar with the matter said.

The employees were notified of the action this week, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel matters.

Meanwhile, as part of a US criminal investigation, the grand jury has been examining statements made to the FAA by the former chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner, one person said. Mr Forkner has been at the centre of the Max controversy since October, when Boeing released internal messages in which he expressed worry over misleading the agency about the new software. He also discussed "Jedi mind tricking" regulators outside the US into accepting the training requirements for the new plane.

'CLOWNS AND MONKEYS'

Boeing released more internal messages in January, provoking an outcry from Congressional investigators and victims' families over comments in which employees mocked regulators and seemed to suggest a cavalier attitude toward safety.

The names of the employees were redacted. "This airplane is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys," one employee wrote. "Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn't," an employee said in another message.

Under chief executive Dave Calhoun, who took over for the ousted Dennis Muilenburg last month, the planemaker has pledged to restore public trust. The personnel moves come after Mr Calhoun vowed to stamp out the disturbing behaviour revealed in the messages.

In a call with reporters Jan 22, he called them "totally appalling" and said they were part of a "micro-culture" that doesn't reflect the company's values. A statement at the time the messages were released said Boeing would take "appropriate action" ultimately including disciplinary moves. A Boeing spokesman declined to comment on the personnel moves.

The New York Times earlier reported that prosecutors have questioned several Boeing employees in front of the grand jury in recent months about whether Mr Forkner deliberately misled FAA officials. "Boeing is cooperating with the Justice Department investigation," said Gordon Johndroe, a Boeing spokesman.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

The Max, Boeing's top-selling plane, has been grounded worldwide for almost a year, costing one of the largest US exporters nearly US$19 billion and disrupting the global aviation industry. A criminal investigation began weeks after the October 2018 crash of a Max operated by Lion Air and became public after another Max flown by Ethiopian Airlines crashed in March near Addis Ababa.

UNPRECEDENTED SCRUTINY

The accidents killed a total of 346 people and led to unprecedented scrutiny of a century-old company whose name is nearly synonymous with flight. The investigation is being conducted in part by the Transportation Department's Inspector General's office, and the Justice Department's Criminal Division in Washington is using a grand jury to help gather information, Bloomberg has reported.

In messages to a colleague in November 2016, Mr Forkner expressed worry that he had misled the FAA on how the system implicated in both crashes, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), worked. "So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)," he wrote. "It wasn't a lie, no one told us this was the case," a colleague replied.

Initially, Boeing engineers designed MCAS to activate only at high speeds. But the company concluded later in the plane's development that it needed to operate during all speed ranges. "Oh shocker alert! MCAS is now active down to M .2," Mr Forkner wrote to his colleague, an apparent reference to 0.2 times the speed of sound, a relatively slow speed for a jet.

He continued by saying that MCAS - which automatically pushes down the nose of the jet - had been "running rampant" in a simulator and called it "egregious".

The changes in MCAS have been a central part of the accident investigations; the increase in the system's power made it harder for pilots to counteract during a malfunction.

Mr Forkner's lawyer, David Gerger, has said the full context of the chat shows that there was no attempt to lie to the FAA. Mr Forkner's concerns were with how a simulator being developed for the Max was performing, Mr Gerger said last year.

"Mark's career - at Air Force, at FAA, and at Boeing - was about safety. And based on everything he knew, he absolutely thought this plane was safe," Mr Gerger said. He didn't reply Friday to an email seeking comment.

The messages released by Boeing in January included others suggesting employees were concerned they had misled people. "This isn't a true statement," said one unidentified person in a May 15, 2018, series of messages. "Yes, I still haven't been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year," another person replied.

The subject about which they are writing isn't clear from the messages, and later in the conversation one of the people added: "Ok then. We are good. No problem then."

BLOOMBERG