The American Prospect: Built to Lie

December 3, 2021 Labor

Every few years, a photo makes the Reddit rounds of three Soviet apparatchiks in hats and double-breasted military jackets frowning intensely at an open coffin. The clumpy black mass inside is what remains of the cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who in April 1967 went along with a doomed plan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the revolution by launching a new space capsule that wasn’t ready for prime time, on the condition that if he died, he be eulogized in an open casket.

For some reason, the Russians not only honored this request, but allowed a photographer to immortalize it, giving space nerds rare documentary evidence that once upon a time, a clique of high-ranking cowards were forced to confront the hideous wreckage of their own venality. What happens in real life is usually the opposite, as Peter Robison’s new book Flying Blind about the murderous Boeing 737 MAX explores in soul-deadening detail.

Boeing’s self-hijacking plane took its first 189 lives on October 29, 2018, just over two months after it had been delivered to the Jakarta Airport terminal of Indonesia’s reigning discount carrier Lion Air. Fishermen described the fuselage plunging nose-first, directly perpendicular to the Java Sea, at speeds many times that of Komarov’s four-and-a-half mile descent from the half-baked Soyuz 1, with its malfunctioning parachutes. A 48-year-old diver dispatched to plumb the deep sea floor for body parts and the elusive cockpit voice recorder became the 190th fatality. As with the Soyuz, in which the famous cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was said to have detailed 200 outstanding manufacturing defects in a memo to superiors, the 737 MAX had been the subject of numerous ignored whistleblower reports, tormented confessions, and abrupt career changes; the general manager of the plane’s final assembly line outside Seattle had resigned in despair the week Lion Air took delivery.

But three years later, nothing has surfaced to suggest that any senior official at Boeing took so much as a passing glance at the corpse stew its greed chucked into the Java Sea, much less any semblance of responsibility.

Instead, a crisis center teeming with “loosely identified, official-looking people” mobilized in a Jakarta hotel before the first black box even surfaced. Lion Air flew families in free of charge to sign documents in exchange for immediate cash payouts. An engineer counted a list of 400 entities she was expected to release from liability in exchange for roughly $92,000 for each of the two immediate family members she’d lost, marveling that the cheapskate airline whose safety record was then being frantically picked over by journalists had so quickly pulled off such a lavish response effort. The organizer turned out to be an insurance company owned by Warren Buffett whose biggest client was actually Boeing.

“Oh my god, this is insane,” one victim’s relative texted a WhatsApp group of mourners, likening the release form shakedowns to a CIA interrogation. No one was permitted to take the documents back to their hotel rooms before signing them, or even bring anyone other than themselves into the room while they signed the release forms, in some cases while being videotaped. The victims’ attorney told The New York Times that he had never seen anything like the releases, and the releases themselves arguably violated Indonesian aviation law. But as Robison explains, the liability shield boiler room disguised as a grief counseling center had actually become a fixture in the aftermath of Boeing and other corporate-sponsored mass fatality events, of the sort that have made Ken Feinberg—has Travis Scott hired him yet?—such a wealthy and ubiquitous media presence.

Boeing had killed their loved ones, Boeing knew it, and Boeing would kill again. Just four months after opening the crisis center, Boeing would be responding to the death of another 154 humans at the hands of its defective MAX plane, with the same zero-shits-givenness on display. In an awkward elevator ride, a victim’s father tells Feinberg his late daughter actually met him once at her college, when he spoke about his creepy memoir about the art of assigning dollar values to the lives of September 11 victims. Feinberg asks robotically, “Oh yeah, I remember that speech, how’s your daughter doing?” (“Fifty feet under the ground in Addis Ababa” is the answer.) Later on, in 2020, Boeing’s then-chief of government relations rejected a request from victims’ families that its executives stay away from a memorial service with the unthinkable retort, “If we’re paying for it, we’ll be there.”

Throughout the MAX crisis, Boeing has remained consistently and unrepentantly addicted to lying, about big stuff and small. Its lies show incredible range and scope, from convenient omissions to epic, elaborate frauds to inexplicable technical fibs about irrelevant details that make the company look, implausibly, even worse than the truth would have; its executives have lied aggressively and stubbornly under penalty of perjury, as congressional investigators noted in a report they published last fall on the disasters: “The responses [of] senior Boeing officials has been disturbing … because of the clear resistance to acknowledge any technical gaffes or managerial miscalculations on the part of Boeing that now seem blatantly obvious and abundantly clear to anyone that looks.”

This makes the experience of trying to invest oneself in the institution’s saga something like trying to fall asleep in coach on an endless nonstop flight to nowhere: painful, endless, boring, with occasional fleeting intervals between consciousness and sleep when the company’s comparably honorable past comes vividly alive and the world makes sense again.

KOMAROV WAS THE FOURTH ASTRONAUT to die in the space race in 1967. The first three had been Americans, who slowly asphyxiated in thousand-degree heat wearing dangerously flammable space suits during a fire that broke out at a January pre-launch test of the Apollo program’s command module, which turned out to have a faulty escape hatch. NASA responded by effectively outsourcing the entire leadership and management of the Apollo program to Boeing, which had forged a reputation for being something of an anomaly within the military-industrial complex: an elite capitalist enterprise driven by anachronistically communitarian values.

Beneath the highest executive ranks, the engineering jobs were all union positions, with a transparent pay scale and a minimum of status-clawing. People worked at Boeing because they loved other people who worked at Boeing, and because working in teams of hundreds of engineers to put together products with a million discrete parts felt like contributing to the advancement of human civilization. The corporate culture was so comically honest that one airline CEO used to joke about his surprise at receiving a random $275,000 check one day from the manufacturer, in honor of an agreement it had made years earlier to compensate its loyal customer in the case that a rival airline negotiated a cheaper price on a plane.

Two years after Boeing assumed the reins of the Apollo project, Neil Armstrong was on the moon; two years after that, astronauts David Scott and James Irwin returned to place a commemorative plaque with the names of 14 fallen astronauts, Komarov among them, in the lunar soil. Even the deepest lows feel in hindsight like triumphs at Boeing of yore, as Robison addresses in a passage on Boeing’s culpability in the deadliest single-plane accident in human history, the 1985 crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, which stemmed from a very slightly half-assed repair one of its technicians had performed seven years earlier. Boeing took full responsibility for the crash with such alacrity that many Japanese officials assumed the company was covering up for an important customer.

Boeing’s Boy Scout era ended abruptly and conclusively in 1997, when it “merged with” (but was in fact definitively conquered by) the insolvent defense contractor McDonnell Douglas. Since then, it has been run the way every other titular “old economy” company in America is run, as a vehicle for legalized looting.

The whole premise of the 737 MAX, much like that of its predecessor the 787, was a lie. The CEO of American Airlines told his Boeing counterpart he was placing a big order for a new, extra-fuel-efficient, single-aisle Airbus, and the Boeing CEO pretended he had a comparable version of the ubiquitous 737 in the works.

What might have been a harmless bluff grew steadily more sinister. Engineers tested a toy-sized miniaturization of the plane in a wind tunnel and realized it flew weird. The massive new engines hadn’t fit properly underneath the 737 wings, so they’d perched them up toward the front of the wings, where they threw off the plane’s center of gravity. This might not have been a big deal but for a new lie the Boeing sales team was telling, that no simulator training would be required for certified 737 pilots to fly the new MAX. (This lie would soon be expanded into a promise that training would be no more intensive than Level B training, which consisted of a 56-minute iPad class.) Boeing developed a software called MCAS to mask the differences between the old and new 737s—a white lie—and then, for good measure, hatched a conspiracy to get all mentions of MCAS stricken from the training materials and flight manuals, to rule out the possibility that some regulator somewhere would notice the new acronym and mandate simulator training.

Lie number five came after the first planes were manufactured, when test pilots realized the handling was still off, and someone decided to solve the problem by substantially tweaking MCAS and not telling anyone about it. The new software would cause the plane to turn abruptly down if a small “angle of attack” (AOA) vane on the exterior of its nose sensed that it was approaching a dangerous stall: a kind of engineering blasphemy, because it meant a single faulty sensor could send the plane nosediving into the Earth—which is what happened—and because it would have been so unbelievably easy to program the software to cross-check the plane’s angle with a second sensor on the other side of the nose before embarking upon a suicide mission. Engineers worried, though, that if the two sensors conflicted, some cockpit alert would need to ask the pilot to reconcile between them, which would in turn tip off pilots (and regulators) to the existence of the software they were trying to conceal.

“So, what happens when the sensor is faulty?” an anonymous Boeing engineer asked a colleague two years before the crash.

“If [it is] faulty then MCAS shuts down immediately,” the anonymous colleague replied.

This turned out to be two lies in one. Not only did a single malfunctioning sensor on Lion Air’s two-month-old MAX activate MCAS into committing mass murder, but there was also no way for Lion Air’s repair unit—whose chief was fired under orders of the Indonesian government the day after the crash—to even know the AOA vane wasn’t working. Another software malfunction Boeing learned about in mid-2017 had disabled on 80 percent of the MAX fleet a cockpit light that should have lit up during the preceding flight to alert pilots of a conflict between the readings of the two sensors. Although someone at Boeing had drafted a memo to airlines informing them of the cockpit light malfunction, and someone else at Boeing had given a supplier the impression the memo had been sent, no one at Boeing ever hit “send.”

The Lion Air crash sent the lie machine into overdrive. Boeing goaded the Federal Aviation Administration into issuing an “airworthiness directive,” coolly “reminding” pilots of the checklist for responding to “uncommanded nose-down trim” caused by “erroneously high single AOA sensor input”; it later emerged that the agency at the very last minute had deleted a line from the directive explaining MCAS. The Wall Street Journal published a story the following week detailing the software’s existence and the company’s strange decision to omit references to it from training materials, and then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg hosted a non-mandatory conference call with board members to make the case that, as he expressed in an email, “the only engineering and PR problem we have is the pseudo problem fabricated by the WSJ!”

The FAA ran an internal “risk assessment” on the threat the unmodified MCAS posed to the flying public and forecast it would likely produce a fatal crash every two to three years, but an MIT statistician determined that the agency failed to count any of the 52 planes per month Boeing was at that point delivering to airlines, and understated the probability of a crash by a factor of at least 24, suggesting that another MCAS crash was likely to occur within a couple of months. This was off by just a bit; the Ethiopian Airlines crash happened 132 days later.

The Boeing on display in Flying Blind will remind Prospect readers of all the other unimaginatively despicable 21st-century deep-state greed monsters. The psychopathic refusal to concede even the tiniest error in judgment seems suspiciously plagiarized from Richard Sackler.

As Sackler blamed the “reckless criminals” and “scum of the earth” who became addicted to OxyContin for his own (drastically insufficient) legal woes, Boeing has worked overtime to promulgate a narrative that blamed the “foreign pilots … too dumb to spell 737” for the crashes, in a desperate attempt to fight off its own culpability.

Robison mentions only one example of an American pilot who “survived” an erroneous MCAS activation in a flight simulator on the first try, a trained FAA pilot who had been coached by Boeing officials prior to the test. The rest took anywhere between six and 60 seconds too long. And yet the mendacious insult to the dead lives on, most radiantly in a jaw-dropping interview Boeing’s new CEO David Calhoun gave to The New York Times in March 2020, during which he claimed pilots who “don’t have anywhere near the experience that they have here in the U.S.” deserved to share blame for the crashes. When asked to clarify whether he was implying that American pilots could have saved the planes, Calhoun asked to go off the record, adding, when reporters demurred, “You can guess the answer.”

THE SOYUZ SURVIVED THE GRUESOME DESCENTS of both Komarov and the Berlin Wall to become an unlikely commercial success during the Obama administration, when NASA decommissioned its space shuttle. The agency’s inspector general last year said it had since 2006 spent $3.9 billion paying the Russians as much as $86 million a ride to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station in the capsule. NASA had awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to produce a domestic space capsule by 2016, but an uncrewed test flight in 2019 failed so spectacularly that the agency drew up a list of 80 corrective actions it would need to take before a second attempt, which was just recently postponed indefinitely for the umpteenth time, following unspecified problems with the propulsion system. (Boeing has offset some of its losses on the program by selling five of its own Soyuz seats to NASA for $373 million in 2017.)

This pattern is replicated across literally every Boeing product line. The 787 Dreamliner produces seemingly more whistleblower lawsuits than planes; the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, from which the MAX program cribbed the MCAS idea, has never successfully refueled a fighter jet in the dark; the latest version of the 777 experienced an “uncommanded pitch event”; more than a hundred 737 MAX jets were recently re-grounded just months after the FAA lifted the original grounding due to as-yet-unexplored electrical problems referenced in numerous whistleblower reports.

Incredibly, the Justice Department earlier this year shut down its probe of Boeing’s MAX murders in exchange for a no-strings cash settlement, resisting calls to appoint the customary “independent compliance monitor” on the basis that—get this—“the misconduct was neither pervasive across the organization, nor undertaken by a large number of employees, nor facilitated by senior management.”

What downed the two MAXes, the DOJ instead concluded, was what Calhoun has dismissed as a toxic “micro-culture” embodied by a middle-aged former Boeing employee named Mark Forkner, whose wardrobe consists largely of Seattle Seahawks jerseys. Forkner is the real-life Komarov figure of Flying Blind.

As the chief technical pilot on the 737 MAX, a job Robison says put the Air Force veteran “about dead last [in the] pecking order” among Boeing pilots, Forkner was charged with closing the deal on getting the 737 certified with the ultra-perfunctory “Level B” pilot training. He traveled the world convincing regulators to accept Boeing’s inadequate training regimens; he casually emailed the FAA requesting that MCAS be expunged from the flight manual; and he sent a colleague a candid text message upon his discovery in a simulator in 2016 that something “craxy” was afoot on the MAX. “So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” Forkner concedes, and even though his colleague responds, “It wasn’t a lie, no one told us that was the case,” he’s now alone among Boeing employees in facing several decades in prison for the crime of being a convenient patsy.

By the time Forkner realized that MCAS was wildly different from what he’d been led to believe, the lies had already been told, and the plane was months away from certification. What was he realistically supposed to do? He had been toiling anonymously in the trenches of Boeing and its titular regulator for long enough to know what happened to whistleblowers. Furthermore, as the self-professed least likely to be kept in the loop among Boeing pilots, who was Mark Fork­ner to blow the whistle? In one of his other widely misquoted emails, Forkner described feeling like “dogs watching TV” while listening to an engineering presentation.

In an almost poetic passage of Flying Blind, Forkner corners Seahawks center Ethan Pocic at the airport and tells him, “You have one job, and that is to protect Russell Wilson, understand?” He clearly saw himself in a similar role at Boeing, even if his bosses struck him as more like the corporate equivalent of Johnny Manziel.

Forkner’s texts first surfaced after the Lion Air crash, when the DOJ launched a criminal fraud investigation into the campaign of concealment detailed in The Wall Street Journal. The book describes Boeing’s then–general counsel J. Michael Luttig, a former groomsman of John Roberts and mentor to FBI chief Chris Wray and Trump AG William Barr, compiling all of Forkner’s correspondence in a kind of dossier for prosecutors in an apparent effort to cast him as the designated “fall guy.” After the second crash, Robison writes, Boeing set up Forkner with a highly regarded lawyer named David Gerger, who quietly convinced the DOJ to move the investigation to Texas, where it ultimately produced a settlement Columbia Law professor John Coffee termed “one of the worst deferred prosecution agreements I have seen.”

It’s not all bad news in the skies: Elon Musk’s SpaceX is now ferrying our astronauts to the ISS and back far more cheaply than the Soyuz, thanks to a stockpile of adult diapers and a workforce chock-full of Boeing defectors mostly content to humor his narcissism for 16-hour days on end because he at least seems to think rockets and jet engines are cool. MCAS, if nothing else, is fixed. But it is hard to swallow this account of the past three years in American aviation and aerospace without fixating on the 1975 exhortation of former Airbus CEO Bernard Lathiere, who told his engineers that “if we don’t have a place in high technology in Europe, then we should just be slaves to the Americans and our children will be slaves.”

“We are fighting,” he said, “for our children.”