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Boeing whistleblower who raised quality concerns found dead

A prominent Boeing whistleblower, a former quality manager who raised concerns about manufacturing practices at the company's 787 Dreamliner factory in South Carolina, was found dead Saturday with what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to local authorities.

The whistleblower, John Barnett, was in Charleston for a deposition in a lawsuit in which he accused Boeing of retaliating against him for filing quality and safety complaints.

Quality issues with design and manufacturing have plagued Boeing for years – notably after the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets in 2018 and 2019, and again since a fuselage panel exploded during a Max flight shortly after takeoff two months ago.

Mr. Barnett filed a complaint against Boeing with the United States Department of Labor in 2017 under the AIR21 whistleblower protection program, which protects employees of aircraft manufacturers who report information relating to violations of air carrier safety. He left the company that year.

Boeing's lawyer deposed Mr. Barnett on Thursday and he was questioned by his own lawyers for half a day on Friday. They were expected to finish the deposition Saturday morning, said Robert Turkewitz, Mr. Barnett's lawyer in the case.

When Mr. Barnett, 62, did not show up Saturday morning and did not answer phone calls, Mr. Turkewitz said he became concerned and called Mr. Barnett's hotel. Mr Barnett was later found dead in his van in the hotel car park.

The Charleston County Coroner's Office confirmed the death, which it said appeared to be “the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

The Charleston Police Department noted the coroner's findings in a statement and said it was investigating. “Detectives are actively investigating this case and are awaiting an official cause of death, as well as any additional findings that may shed further light on the circumstances surrounding Mr. Barnett’s death,” the department said.

Mr. Turkewitz said Mr. Barnett's experience at Boeing had affected him deeply.

“It really weighed on him, what was happening, and reliving all these things that had happened and the stress that it had caused,” Mr. Turkewitz said.

An administrative judge from the Ministry of Labor was hearing the whistleblower's case, which was undergoing preliminary investigation. A trial had been set for June.

Mr. Turkewitz said he planned to pursue Mr. Barnett's case, on behalf of Mr. Barnett's family. “What John wanted was to at least make a difference,” he said.

In a statement, Boeing said: “We are saddened by the passing of Mr. Barnett and our thoughts are with his family and friends. »

Known as Swampy because of his Louisiana roots, Mr. Barnett worked at Boeing for nearly three decades until his retirement in 2017. He had worked at the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, before moving to a new factory in North Charleston, South Carolina, in 2010 to work on Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, a jumbo jet that was the company's most important new plane in a generation.

After the crashes of two of Boeing's 737 Max planes in 2018 and 2019, Mr. Barnett's concerns about quality problems at Boeing were highlighted in the New York Times and other media outlets, as examples of widespread problems in the manufacturing of the company.

Mr. Barnett told the Times in 2019 that he had discovered piles of titanium shards hanging above the flight control wires of some planes. These chips were produced when the fasteners were inserted into the nuts.

Mr. Barnett said in interviews that he repeatedly urged his bosses to remove the shards, but they refused and moved him to another part of the factory.

In 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration required Dreamliners to be cleared of chips before being delivered to airlines. Boeing said at the time that it complied with that directive and was working with a supplier to improve the nut design. But the company said the problem did not pose a flight safety concern.

Mr. Barnett also told The Times in 2019 that he had reported to management that faulty parts had gone missing, raising the possibility that they had been installed in planes.

He said his bosses asked him to complete paperwork regarding the missing pieces without knowing where they had gone.

The FAA investigated and found that Boeing had lost some damaged parts.

“As a quality manager at Boeing, you are the last line of defense before a defect is reported to the flying public,” Mr. Barnett told the Times in 2019. “And I have yet to see one plane taking off from Charleston. that I would put my name down to say it is safe and airworthy.

Mr. Barnett, who lived in Pineville, La., raised concerns again in interviews with The Times this year, as questions about quality problems at Boeing resurfaced after a Jan. 5 incident during which a panel blew up a Boeing 737 Max. 9 in flight on an Alaska Airlines flight.

“Over the years, quality has just been chipped away” at Boeing, Mr. Barnett said, adding: “It's not a 737 problem. It's a Boeing problem.

Boeing needs to “get back to basics,” he said. “They need to return to Aircraft Building 101.”

Mr. Barnett's mother, Vicky Stokes, said in an interview Tuesday that her son's experience with Boeing had taken a toll, making him appear older than his three brothers even though he was the youngest. “He carried that on his shoulders for so many years,” she said.

In an interview in January, Mr. Barnett said he no longer flies planes because of what he saw during his time at Boeing.

“I’m not going to get on a plane today,” he said. “It's sad. It breaks my heart. I love Boeing. I love what it stood for.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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