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Boeing Whistleblower John Barnett Found Dead

Everything we know about the former Boeing employee who was found dead in South Carolina days after questioning.

Credit: Barnett family

On 9 March, 62-year-old John Barnett, former Boeing whistleblower, was found dead in a hotel car park. Officials in Charleston, South Carolina, said that he died from a “self-inflicted” gunshot wound to the back of the head.

Mr Barnett’s death came after a set of legal interviews associated with the Boeing case. He had given a formal deposition in the week prior to his death, and he was due to undergo further questioning on Saturday, 9 March. When he failed to attend, the hotel received a phone call from a “Rob” who requested a welfare check. As a result, police found Barnett dead.

John Barnett’s brother claimed in a statement that “He was suffering from PTSD and anxiety attacks as a result of being subjected to the hostile work environment at Boeing, which we believe led to his death.”

Police investigations are still underway. The Charleston police department said, “We understand the global attention this case has garnered, and it is our priority to ensure that the investigation is not influenced by speculation but is led by facts and evidence. Given the sensitive nature of the investigation, we are unable to participate in media interviews at this time. This stance is not unique to this case but is a standard procedure we adhere to in order to preserve the integrity of active investigations.”

Barnett’s role as Boeing whistleblower

Barnett worked for Boeing for almost three decades, retiring in 2017. He spent his last seven years as a quality manager at the company. Working at the North Charleston plant, he oversaw the 787 Dreamliner.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the aircraft built in John Barnett’s plant. Credit: Shutterstock/ Jordan Tan

He found clusters of metal slivers hanging over the flight control wiring on several aircraft. According to Barnett, he raised concerns to his bosses who moved him to another part of the company’s plant in response.

The safety concerns went public in 2019 when Barnett participated in a New York Times feature. The article shed light on Boeing’s safety lapses in the North Charleston site. Amongst the whistleblowers’ concerns were faulty oxygen systems, which could leave the Dreamliner without oxygen in the case of sudden decompression. He reported a failure rate of 25%, meaning that one in four could fail in a real emergency situation.

Barnett also publicly claimed that faulty parts were deliberately fitted to planes. Boeing denied all accusations of neglect of safety practices. They claim their staff build all aircraft to the highest quality and safety standards.

Boeing’s recent safety crisis

2018 and 2019 saw two 737 Max 8 jet crashes, which killed 346 people in total. Boeing’s most recent safety concern happened on an Alaska Airlines flight in January. A cabin panel blowout forced a 737 Max 9 jet into an emergency landing. The Max 9 aircraft have since been grounded for several weeks.

The panel blowout forced the Boeing 737 Max 9 jet into an emergency landing.
The panel blowout forced the Boeing 737 Max 9 jet into an emergency landing. Credit: YouTube/ CBC News: The National

In light of recent concerns, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun reflected that the business has “much to prove” to regain trust. He said that winning back confidence will be a “serious challenge.”

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) increased the oversight of Boeing and banned the company from expanding production on its max manufacturing line. Mike Whitaker, the agency’s administrator, warns that no product expansion will be approved “until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved.”

Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, stated earlier this month that Boeing refused to provide a list of workers responsible for the faulty door plug. The company also failed to provide documentation about a repair job, as staff removed and reinstalled the panel. She said, “Without that information, that raises concerns about quality assurance, quality management, and safety management systems.” Boeing has since provided a full list of those on the 737 door team.

Boeing 787 malfunction

There was a further incident aboard a Boeing 787 last week. The pilot of a Latam Airlines flight from Sydney to Auckland temporarily lost control of the aircraft, causing it to take a sudden drop. Several passengers were knocked over in the process. Brian Jokat, a passenger aboard the flight, said the pilot told him that the gauges went blank. As a result, he was unable to control the vehicle for a short time. Jokat recalls that he awoke as the vehicle “dropped something to the effect of 500 feet instantly”. This malfunction left ten people in hospital.

Calhoun claimed that the company has taken steps to strengthen safety and quality processes over the past few years, but “this accident makes it absolutely clear that we have more work to do.”

Barnett’s death

The Boeing whistleblower’s death comes just three months before his complaint, first filed in 2017, was due to go to trial. In a statement, his family revealed that, “He was looking forward to having his day in court and hoped that it would force Boeing to change its culture.” In a reflection on his character, they fondly recalled, “John carried all this on his shoulders to try to bring this all to light in the interest of the flying public.”

Boeing released a statement on Barnett’s death, which read, “We are saddened by Mr. Barnett’s passing, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.”

The Charleston police department is still investigating the circumstances of Barnett’s death. The status of the trial, due to take place in June, is unclear.

Written By

Madison Collier (she/her) is a current finalist reading for BA English Language and Literature at Oxford University. Madison writes on news, culture, and entertainment, but specialises in music and identity.

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