Mark Forkner, a former test pilot for Boeing, pleaded not guilty to charges that he withheld from regulators information related to safety issues with the 737 Max jetliner, which was involved in two fatal crashes that left hundreds dead.
Forkner, 49, appeared before a U.S. magistrate judge in federal court in Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday.
Following his plea, Forkner was immediately released and left the courthouse with his wife and attorneys.
"Everyone who was affected by this tragedy deserves a search for the truth, not a search for a scapegoat," said defense attorney David Gerger, according to NBC 5 news. "And if the government takes this case to trial the truth will show that Mark did not cause this tragedy, Mark did not lie, and Mark should not be charged."
Forkner's Thursday indictment charges that he hid information about a flight-control system that activated erroneously and pushed down the noses of Max jets that crashed in 2018 in Indonesia, and 2019 in Ethiopia. The pilots tried unsuccessfully to regain control, but both planes went into nosedives minutes after taking off.
Forkner was Boeing’s chief technical pilot on the Max program. Prosecutors said that Forkner learned about an important change to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System flight-control system in 2016, but withheld the information from the FAA. That led the agency to delete reference to MCAS from a technical report and, in turn, it didn’t appear in pilot manuals. Most pilots didn’t know about MCAS until after the first crash.
Prosecutors suggested that Forkner downplayed the issue to avoid a requirement that pilots undergo extensive and expensive retraining, which would increase costs for airlines. Congressional investigators suggested additional training would have added $1 million to the price of each plane.
Chicago-based Boeing agreed to a $2.5 billion settlement to end a Justice Department investigation into the company’s actions. The government agreed to drop a criminal charge of conspiracy against Boeing after three years if the company carries out terms of a January 2020 settlement.
A trial date has been set for Nov. 15. If convicted on all counts, Forkner could face a sentence of up to 100 years in prison.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.