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Boeing whistleblower who warned of aircraft safety flaws is found dead

John Barnett, who spent more than three decades at Boeing, sounded the alarm with aviation authorities in 2017 about he said were potentially “catastrophic” safety failings.
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A former Boeing quality inspector who filed a whistleblower complaint over alleged plane safety flaws was found dead “from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” officials in Charleston, South Carolina, said Monday.

John Barnett, 62, of Louisiana, who spent more than three decades at the aircraft manufacturing giant, sounded the alarm with aviation authorities in 2017 about what he said were potentially “catastrophic” safety failings.

His family said in a statement Monday that he had tried to highlight serious concerns but was met with “a culture of concealment” that valued “profits over safety.”

Boeing whistleblower who warned of Dreamliner safety flaws found dead
Boeing whistleblower John Barnett.Courtesy of the Barnett family

Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal said in a statement Monday that Barnett died “from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound” in the city Saturday.

Barnett was in town to testify in a deposition in his federal legal action against Boeing, with his case set to go before an administrative law judge later this year, according to his attorneys.

"He was in very good spirits and really looking forward to putting this phase of his life behind him and moving on," the attorneys, Brian Knowles and Robert Turkewitz, said in a joint statement Tuesday. "We didn’t see any indication he would take his own life. No one can believe it."

They urged local police to keep investigating despite the coroner’s initial ruling.

"We are all devastated," the attorneys said. "We need more information about what happened to John. The Charleston police need to investigate this fully and accurately and tell the public what they find out. No detail can be left unturned."

A Charleston police spokesperson, Sgt. Anthony Gibson, said in a statement Monday that the police department had “not received any indication from the coroner’s office that foul play is suspected in this case.”

In a later statement, he pointed to the coroner’s preliminary findings and said detectives “are actively investigating this case and are awaiting the formal cause of death, along with any additional findings that might shed further light on the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Barnett.”

Case was up for trial in June

The statement from Barnett's family said that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety attacks and that the “hostile work environment at Boeing” led to his death.

In a statement Monday, ​Boeing said: ​​"We are saddened by Mr. Barnett’s passing, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.” Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations in the family’s statement.

Barnett, known as Mitch to his family and “Swampy” to his friends, had worked at Boeing’s 787 plant in Charleston since 2010, his family said.

In 2019, The New York Times interviewed several former Boeing employees about their safety concerns. Barnett told the paper that metal shavings — created when metal fasteners are screwed into nuts — could cut wiring that connects the flight controls.

The Federal Aviation Administration ordered Boeing to clear the shavings from the Dreamliners in 2017. Boeing said then that it was following the ruling and would look to improve the design of the nut, but it also said it wasn’t a flight safety issue.

But Barnett told the Times: “I haven’t seen a plane out of Charleston yet that I’d put my name on saying it’s safe and airworthy.”

After he retired in 2017, Barnett filed a whistleblower complaint with federal regulators about his experiences at the South Carolina plant. He also launched a separate legal action against Boeing, accusing it of denigrating his character and hampering his career. Boeing denied the allegations.

His case was up for trial in June, the family statement said, adding: “He was looking forward to having his day in court and hoped that it would force Boeing to change its culture.”

The status of the case was not immediately clear Tuesday.

Death comes amid mishaps involving Boeing

While Barnett loved his work for most of his career, in Charleston “he learned that upper management was pressuring the quality inspectors and managers to cut corners” and not to follow legally required safety processes, the statement said.

He alleged that staff members were pressured not to document defects because it would slow down the assembly line, it added.

“John told us that every day was a battle to get management to do the right thing,” the family said. The statement added that Barnett and others who highlighted problems were labeled as “trouble-makers,” whereas previously the company had rewarded those who discovered defects.

“It caused John so much stress that his doctor told him that if he stayed, he would have a heart attack,” the family said.

An obituary shared by his family said, “Mitch was fun-loving, and totally devoted to family, especially his nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews.”

It added that he is survived by his mother, Vicky Melder Stokes; three brothers, Mike Barnett, Robbie Barnett and Rodney Barnett; eight nieces and nephews; and 11 great-nieces and nephews.

Boeing faces regulatory and public scrutiny over a series of incidents involving its planes.

The Justice Department opened an investigation after a door plug blew out on an Alaska Airlines flight in January, which led to the temporary grounding of some Boeing 737 Max 9 airplanes. They have since returned to the air.

And Monday, 50 people were injured on a Boeing Dreamliner plane after a sudden movement midair on a flight from Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit for additional resources.