Why Ed Pierson Won’t Fly on a Boeing 737 MAX

Ed Pierson, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, knows a thing or two about airplanes.

He served in the Navy for 30 years and held several military leadership positions including Naval flight officer.

He worked for Boeing for ten years, from 2008 to 2018, including as a flight operations senior manager and as a production manager within the 737 program.

He retired from Boeing after witnessing chaos on the factory floor and top management ignoring production quality warning bells.

Despite assurances from Boeing’s top brass that the 737 MAX is safe, Pierson will not fly on the plane.

Pierson says that since the plane was ungrounded on December 29, 2020, there have been 43 reports of malfunctions and failures aboard the planes, including six flights where U.S. pilots declared emergencies.

These failures come on the heels of two Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane crashes — the Lion Air crash off the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia in October 2018 that killed all 189 on board and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019 that killed all 157 on board.

And Pierson says safety investigators never got to the bottom of why the sensors malfunctioned and triggered the MCAS software that pushed those planes into their nosedives. 

Pierson started seeing problems in 2017 when 737 factory conditions started to deteriorate, initially driven by supply chain problems, including late deliveries of engines.

In 2018, factory conditions worsened with  more late parts, overworked employees, skilled labor shortage, shortage of equipment, declining performance metrics.

On June 9, 2018, Pierson had enough.

He wrote an email to the general manager of the 737 production line.

“Frankly right now all my internal warning bells are going off,” Pierson wrote. “And for the first time in my life, I’m sorry to say that I’m hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing airplane.”

“At some point in the second quarter of 2018, I started talking with my bosses,” Pierson told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “And I wasn’t the only one. Many people were concerned and expressed their concern. I did my best to ring the bell. And that’s what I communicated and wrote by email to the general manager. I decided – this is too urgent to go to the different levels between me and the general manager. So I went straight to the general manager of the 737 MAX factory.”

What was his name?

“Scott Campbell.”

“We were pumping out fifty planes a month. Time was of the essence. There were scary things I was seeing and saying – this ain’t right.” 

“I told the boss – you have a dangerous, unstable production system, we need to shut down. We have to shut it down.” 

“He said to me – why do you feel that way? I gave him a list of examples.”

“I told him – we need to shut down.”

“He said – we can’t shut down.”

“I said – why not? I’ve seen people in the military shut down for lesser concerns.”

“And that’s when he came back and said – the military is not a profit making organization.”

“I was so stunned by that. So this is a commercial operation and therefore it’s okay to take chances with people’s lives like that?”

“It was also insulting to people in the military. It hit me – he’s under a lot of pressure from Chicago. And he conveyed as much. He said – I can’t shut this down. We can’t shut this down.”

“I said – what do you mean? You are the head person. You are in charge of 8,000 people here. You are the senior person. Between you and the CEO there are like two people.”

“Prior to this meeting, I had high regard for this person. He seemed like a personable man who was genuinely concerned about these things. I think he was under a huge amount of pressure to get airplanes out the door. We had sales goals and delivery goals. He was the person who could have stopped the line. Let’s slow down, let’s get our act together, let our suppliers catch up, let our people get some rest. They were working ridiculous hours.” 

“He didn’t want to do it. I argued with him about it. I got kind of testy about it. And I said – look, this is not safe. And he said – I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll look at the quality reports. And I said – please do. I said – you might want to let our customers know also. If there are some trends out there, it’s going to show up when the plane is in service.”

You wrote that email on June 9, 2018. That conversation was soon after that email?

“I sent the email initially alerting him to my concerns. He said – okay Ed, I’ll check into it. And then after a couple of weeks, things were getting worse. And that’s when I requested a face to face meeting with him. That meeting was in his office, looking out over Lake Washington. He had a beautiful view. It was just him and I.”

“It was so awkward. I was standing in the conference room waiting for him to show up. And I heard him ask his administrative assistant – who am I meeting with? And she said – Ed Pierson. And he said – why does he want to speak with me? And she said – “I don’t know.”

“And we didn’t even sit down. He was all pleasant. And right out of the gate, I said – we have to shut this down. And it took about ten minutes of arguing before we sat down. And it didn’t get better.”

Going into that meeting, did you suspect – this could be the end of my career at Boeing?

“Absolutely. I thought – what a crappy way to end my career. I had planned to stay at Boeing for another five years or so. But earlier in the year, just because of everything that was going on, I made a decision – this is not a good place to work.” 

“But walking into his office, I thought – this is going to end with me getting fired. And I was going to have to explain that I didn’t actually retire from the company but that I was fired from the company.” 

It says on your website (edpierson.com) that you retired in 2018. 

“I did. I was not fired at that meeting. I knew I wasn’t going to back down. I was either going to be more outspoken and potentially get fired or they were going to do something about the problems in the factory.” 

“As we were walking out of his office, there was this beautiful model of the MAX in a glass casing. And he says to me – I want you to pay close attention like you have been paying attention. And I want you to see if you see things improving. And I want you to come back and report to me.” 

“And I said – I can’t do that, Scott.”

“And he looked at me incredulously like – what do you mean, I’m the general manager.”

“And I said – I’m retiring in about four weeks. This is really serious. And I just walked away.”

“I took all of my communication and I shared them with some other managers. I wanted them to know what the communications had been.” 

Two months later Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the ocean after takeoff from Jakarta. When you heard about that crash, what went through your mind?

“I was an assistant high school football coach. I was in my living room putting the scouting report together for the next team we were going to play. And the news flash came up. And it said – 737 crashes into the ocean. And it was horrifying. It totally got your attention.”

“Then they said it was a MAX. I said MAX – that’s a brand new plane. And I first thought – maybe it was a bomb or horrible weather. Then I saw it was clear. I instantly thought –  this was not good. Did the pilot do something deliberate? I had a horrifying feeling.”

“But I knew there would be a preliminary investigation within a month. I was reading that thing on the plane. I said – this doesn’t make any sense. There was no mention of what was going on in the factory. It was a brand new plane. It was two months old.”

“Right away, I wrote to the CEO of Boeing. I said – I just retired. I want to ask you to look into the problems in the factory. And I tried to get the international investigators involved.” 

“Then I got a call from Michael Luttig, the general counsel of Boeing. And he called me up and said – Hi my name is Judge Luttig. And I said – Hi Judge, am I in trouble?”

“I’m sitting in my car. And I said – why do you say Judge Luttig? And he explained that he was a former federal judge. And he said – I got this letter that you wrote to the CEO. He got it. He read it. He asked me to follow up with you.”

“And I asked myself – why is the general counsel of Boeing calling me? I was asking them to get the investigators to look at the factory. And I thought – he’s calling me to see if I’m credible, or a wack job or what information I have?” 

“Maybe it was an intimidation thing. I didn’t know what to make of it. We had a long conversation. Then we had a couple of follow up conversations. And then he brought the number two legal person in on the last conversation.” 

“I was getting frustrated. He said – we are going to look into this and talk to the people in the program. They asked me what recommendation I had.” 

“And I said – bring in a team of cross functional experts in. Let them come in and look at what’s happening with the supply chain, quality, manufacturing, engineering. And do a holistic review of the factory. It’s dangerous. They promised me they would consider that. But I didn’t hear from them. So I wrote this long detailed email outlining all of my observations. I wanted to go on record and hand it to them on a silver platter. I said – I don’t know whether you are going to go get the experts, but I want you to know this. The number two general counsel sent me back a note saying – rest assured we took this seriously.” 

“He tells me each plane is flight tested after it comes out of production. Like I didn’t know that. I worked in flight testing for five years.”

“It was just talking points.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Ed Pierson, see 22 Corporate Crime Reporter 2(12), Monday January 10, 2022, print edition only.] 

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