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Whistleblower Josh Dean of Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems has died

By Dominic Gates, , The Seattle Times (TNS),
Published: May 2, 2024, 7:44am

Joshua Dean, a former quality auditor at Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems and one of the first whistleblowers to allege Spirit leadership had ignored manufacturing defects on the 737 MAX, died Tuesday morning after a struggle with a sudden, fast-spreading infection.

Known as Josh, Dean lived in Wichita, Kan., where Spirit is based. He was 45, had been in good health and was noted for having a healthy lifestyle.

He died after two weeks in critical condition, his aunt Carol Parsons said.

Spirit spokesperson Joe Buccino said: “Our thoughts are with Josh Dean’s family. This sudden loss is stunning news here and for his loved ones.”

Dean had given a deposition in a Spirit shareholder lawsuit and also filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration alleging “serious and gross misconduct by senior quality management of the 737 production line” at Spirit.

Spirit fired Dean in April 2023, and he had filed a complaint with the Department of Labor alleging his termination was in retaliation for raising concerns related to aviation safety.

Parsons said Dean became ill and went to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing just over two weeks ago. He was intubated and developed pneumonia and then a serious bacterial infection, MRSA.

His condition deteriorated rapidly, and he was airlifted from Wichita to a hospital in Oklahoma City, Parsons said. There he was put on an ECMO machine, which circulates and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body, taking over heart and lung function when a patient’s organs don’t work on their own.

His mother posted a message Friday on Facebook relating all those details and saying that Dean was “fighting for his life.”

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He was heavily sedated and put on dialysis. A CT scan indicated he had suffered a stroke, his mom’s post said.

By the end, doctors were considering amputating both hands and both feet. “It was brutal what he went through,” Parsons said. “Heartbreaking.”

Dean was represented by a law firm in South Carolina that also represented Boeing whistleblower John “Mitch” Barnett.

Barnett was found dead in an apparent suicide in March. He was in the midst of giving depositions alleging Boeing retaliated against him for complaints about quality lapses when he was found dead from a gunshot wound in Charleston, S.C., where Boeing has its 787 manufacturing facility.

The Charleston County Coroner’s Office reported Barnett’s death appeared to be “from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.” Almost two months later, the police investigation into his death is still ongoing.

Brian Knowles, one of Dean’s lawyers, said he didn’t want to speculate about the close timing and circumstances of the two deaths.

“Whistleblowers are needed. They bring to light wrongdoing and corruption in the interests of society. It takes a lot of courage to stand up,” Knowles said. “It’s a difficult set of circumstances. Our thoughts now are with John’s family and Josh’s family.”

Dean, a mechanical engineer, began working at Spirit in 2019. He was laid off the next year following pandemic-related job cuts and returned to Spirit in May 2021 as a quality auditor.

In October 2022, Dean said he found a serious manufacturing defect: mechanics improperly drilling holes in the aft pressure bulkhead of the MAX. When he flagged this issue with management, he said nothing was done.

Focused on those defects, he said he missed during that same audit a separate manufacturing flaw in the fittings that attach the vertical tail fin to the fuselage. When that was discovered in April and caused a delivery pause at Boeing’s Renton plant, Dean was fired.

Then in August, Spirit announced the discovery of improperly drilled holes in the MAX’s aft pressure bulkhead, a flaw that was present in MAXs built as early as 2019. This caused another delivery halt in Renton.

With that discovery, Dean filed a safety complaint with the FAA. He said Spirit had used him as a scapegoat and had lied to the FAA about the aft pressure bulkhead defects.

“After I was fired, Spirit AeroSystems [initially] did nothing to inform the FAA, and the public” about their knowledge of the aft pressure bulkhead defects, he wrote in his complaint.

In November, the FAA sent Dean a letter stating that it had completed an investigation of the safety issues he had flagged. The letter cloaks the outcome though it seems to confirm that his allegations had substance.

“The investigation determined that your allegations were appropriately addressed under an FAA-approved safety program,” the FAA wrote. “However, due to the privacy provisions of those programs, specific details cannot be released.”

That same month, Dean filed his aviation whistleblower complaint with the Department of Labor, alleging wrongful termination and “gross misconduct of senior level Spirit AeroSystems Quality Managers.”

That case was still pending.

After he left Spirit, Dean took a job for a short time at Boeing Wichita, then left to work for another company.

The shareholder lawsuit alleging that Spirit management withheld information on the quality flaws and harmed stockholders was filed in December. Supporting the suit, Dean provided a deposition detailing his allegations.

After a panel blew off a Boeing 737 MAX plane in January, bringing new attention to the quality lapses at Spirit, one of Dean’s former Spirit colleagues confirmed some of Dean’s allegations.

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