Until Dec. 23, when he was fired in the aftermath of two deadly jet crashes, Dennis Muilenburg was the CEO of Boeing, a multinational airplane manufacturer and defense contractor based in Chicago. He is also a native Iowan who graduated from Sioux Center High School in 1982 before going on to receive his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Iowa State University four years later. It was during that time that he got his start at Boeing as an intern in 1985.
The local connection caught the eye of the university’s student newspaper, the Iowa State Daily, which published an editorial 11 days before the CEO’s termination headlined, “Muilenburg’s actions reflect poorly on Iowa State.” The editorial faulted the Federal Aviation Administration for allowing Boeing’s 737 Max airliners to continue flying after the first of two deadly crashes despite the agency’s own conclusion that their design flaws could lead to future fatalities. However, quoting the slogan popularized by Harry Truman that “the buck stops here,” the Daily argued that the alum needed to “take action to correct the problems with the 737 Max.” The editorial stopped short of calling for his resignation.
Those problems became apparent on Oct. 29, 2018, when a 737 Max 8 fell into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff from a major airport in Indonesia, killing all 189 people aboard. A second jet of the same model crashed on March 10, 2019, near the start of a flight from Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa to Nairobi, Kenya. All 157 passengers and crew members died.
Far from alleviating concerns about the tragedies, Muilenburg antagonized FAA Administrator Steve Dickson by making public statements projecting that 737 Max airliners, which were grounded after the March crash, would soon return to service. In a December email to congressional aviation oversight committees, the FAA expressed Dickson’s concern “that Boeing continues to pursue a return-to-service schedule that is not realistic due to delays that have accumulated for a variety of reasons.” The email also criticized Muilenburg’s statements, claiming they had created the perception that they were made “to force FAA into taking quicker action.”
In January, two and a half weeks after Muilenburg’s ouster, internal messages handed over to congressional investigators backed up evidence in previously released documents that Boeing employees, including pilots, were aware of faulty software and other problems with the 737 Max prior to the first crash, and that the company likely withheld critical information from federal regulators. One message read that “this airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys.”
The scandal marked a striking fall from grace for Muilenburg, who had been promoted to CEO in July 2015. Five months before the first 737 Max crash, he received a dean’s award from the University of Washington, where he got his master’s in aeronautics and astronautics. The university praised Muilenburg for making “an indelible mark on the company and broader aerospace community as an engineer and industry leader.”
In November 2018, as regulators investigated the crash, Muilenburg flew over the farm he grew up on in the small town of Maurice en route to a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new, $32 million Sioux County Regional Airport in northwest Iowa. Standing alongside Gov. Kim Reynolds, he delivered the event’s keynote speech.
“You think about Sioux Center, Orange City, Sioux County, the FAA, the state of Iowa, all working together to make this happen,” he said, according to a report in the Sioux City Journal. “This is the place where we learn about partnerships and community, hard work and integrity. No matter where you are in the world, that applies.”
Under fire from congressional lawmakers, Muilenburg in November offered to give up his annual bonus worth $13 million the previous year. After he was fired, Boeing also refused him severance pay and tens of millions of dollars in stock awards. Nevertheless, Muilenburg departed with $80.7 million in pay, pension benefits, and unexercised stock options. The families of the crash victims, by comparison, have been offered $50 million from the company.