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Whistleblower Joshua Dean, who raised concerns about Boeing jets, dies at 45

Joshua Dean, who died on Tuesday, had gone public with his concerns about defects and quality-control problems at Spirit AeroSystems, a major supplier of parts for Boeing. Here, a Spirit AeroSystems logo is seen on a 737 fuselage sent to Boeing's factory in Renton, Wash., in January.
Jason Redmond
AFP via Getty Images
Joshua Dean, who died on Tuesday, had gone public with his concerns about defects and quality-control problems at Spirit AeroSystems, a major supplier of parts for Boeing. Here, a Spirit AeroSystems logo is seen on a 737 fuselage sent to Boeing's factory in Renton, Wash., in January.

Joshua Dean, a former quality auditor at a key Boeing supplier who raised concerns about improperly drilled holes in the fuselage of 737 Max jets, has died.

Dean, 45, died on Tuesday morning, his family announced on social media. His family told NPR on Thursday that Dean had quickly fallen into critical condition after being diagnosed with a MRSA bacterial infection.

He was airlifted from ​​a hospital in Wichita, Kan., to another facility in Oklahoma City, but medical teams were unable to save his life, according to The Seattle Times, which was the first to report his death.

"He passed away yesterday morning, and his absence will be deeply felt. We will always love you Josh," Dean's aunt, Carol Dean Parsons, said via Facebook.

Dean raised quality issues in manufacturing 737 Max

Dean was one of the first to flag potentially dangerous defects with 737 Max jets at Spirit AeroSystems, a major Boeing supplier that was spun off from the planemaker in 2005.

Now federal investigators are looking more closely at Spirit and Boeing to understand what went wrong with the door panel that blew off an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 in midair in January — the latest chapter in a long and troubled relationship between the two companies.

"Our thoughts are with Josh Dean's family. This sudden loss is stunning news here and for his loved ones," said Spirit spokesman Joe Buccino in a statement.

Dean is the second Boeing-related whistleblower to die in the past three months. In March,John Barnett, 62, died in Charleston, S.C., "from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound," the local coroner said. At the time, Barnett had been testifying in his retaliation lawsuit against Boeing. Police in Charleston say they're still investigating his death.

Dean and Barnett were both represented by lawyer Brian Knowles.

"Josh's passing is a loss to the aviation community and the flying public," Knowles said in a statement. "He possessed tremendous courage to stand up for what he felt was true and right and raised quality and safety issues. Aviation companies should encourage and incentivize those that do raise these concerns."

Dean rapidly went from healthy to being hospitalized

Dean's mother and stepfather describe him as a studious and honest man, a "health nut" who rarely drank and attended church regularly. His career was helped by his prodigious memory and attention to detail, they said.

"He was just amazing," said Wynn Weir, Dean's stepfather. "He could read something and then he could just tell you word for word what he read" days later.

Dean started feeling sick around two weeks ago, his mother, Virginia Green, told NPR. He stayed home from work for a couple days, but things got worse.

"Sunday [April 21] is when I got a call from him that he was really sick and having trouble breathing," Green said. "Said he went to an immediate care and they told him he had strep throat."

Green went to check on her son at his home, telling him to call her if he felt worse.

"He did call me a couple hours later, told me he was in the emergency room," she said. "And he was scared. They found something on his lungs."

"He tested positive for influenza B, he tested positive for MRSA. He had pneumonia, his lungs were completely filled up. And from there, he just went downhill."

Dean was initially treated at St. Joseph hospital in Wichita. But as he got worse, he was sent to an Integris hospital in Oklahoma City.

It was a stunning turn of events for Dean and his family. Green says he was very healthy — someone who went to the gym, ran nearly every day and was very careful about his diet.

"This was his first time ever in a hospital," she said. "He didn't even have a doctor because he never was sick."

But within days, Dean's kidneys gave out and he was relying on anECMO life support machine to do the work of his heart and lungs. The night before Dean died, Green said, the medical staff in Oklahoma did a bronchoscopy on his lungs.

"The doctor said he'd never seen anything like it before in his life. His lungs were just totally ... gummed up, and like a mesh over them."

Green says she has asked for an autopsy to determine exactly what killed her son. Results will likely take months, she said.

"We're not sure what he died of," she said. "We know that he had a bunch of viruses. But you know, we don't know if somebody did something to him, or did he just get real sick."

Dean alleged that quality-control systems were flawed

Dean followed his father and grandfather into the commercial aviation industry, holding a series of jobs in the same factory in Wichita where they had both worked before.

After earning a degree in engineering, Dean took his first job at Spirit in 2019. He was let go amid mass layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 but returned to work for the company the next year as a quality auditor.

Dean took that job seriously and grew increasingly frustrated with what he described as a "a culture of not counting defects correctly" at Spirit.

During two interviews in January, Dean said that Spirit pressured employees not to report defects in order to get planes out of the factory faster.

"Now, I'm not saying they don't want you to go out there and inspect a job. You know, they do," Dean told NPR. "But if you make too much trouble, you will get the Josh treatment. You will get what happened to me."

Dean was fired in April of last year — in retaliation, he said, for flagging improperly drilled holes in fuselages.

"I think they were sending out a message to anybody else," Dean said. "If you are too loud, we will silence you."

Gave testimony in a shareholder lawsuit against Spirit

Dean described what he saw while working for Spirit in a deposition for a lawsuit filed by the company's shareholders, who accuse the company of misleading investors by attempting to conceal "excessive" numbers of defects at the Kansas factory. He was not a plaintiff in the case.

In the shareholder lawsuit, Dean said he flagged a significant defect — mis-drilled holes in the aft pressure bulkhead of 737 Max fuselages — months before he was fired. His deposition lays out a series of pivotal dates:

October 2022: In his auditor role, Dean realizes Spirit workers mis-drilled holes on the 737 Max aft pressure bulkhead, representing a potential threat to maintaining cabin pressure during flight. The lawsuit accuses the company of concealing the problem.

April 13, 2023: Boeing publicly reveals learning of a separate defect, related to the tail fin fittings on certain 737 Max aircraft. Spirit then confirms that defect.

April 26, 2023: Spirit fires Dean, saying he failed to flag the tail fin issue. In his testimony, Dean said he told company officials that he might have missed the tail fin defect because he had just discovered the problem with bulkheads he inspected and was focused on that.

August 23, 2023: Boeing announces it has found fastener holes in the aft pressure bulkhead on certain 737 Max airplanes that don't match its specifications, resulting in "snowmen," due to the multiple holes' elongated shape. It's the problem Dean flagged 10 months earlier. On the same day, Spirit releases a statement acknowledging the issue.

The shareholder lawsuit accuses Spirit of concealing the bulkhead defect "not only from investors, but also apparently from Boeing."

A Spirit spokesman says the company strongly disagrees with the lawsuit's allegations, and it's fighting the case in court.

Boeing and Spirit look for ways to boost quality

Boeing is currently in talks to acquire Spirit as the planemaker's leaders concede they may have outsourced too many parts of the manufacturing chain.

"Did it go too far? Yeah, probably did. Now it's here and now, and now I've got to deal with it," Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said in an interview with CNBC earlier this year.

Boeing agreed last month to advance $425 million to Spirit as it works to improve its manufacturing quality.

In interviews with NPR, Joshua Dean predicted it would be difficult to replace the experienced workforce that Spirit lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The mechanics aren't as experienced. Neither are the inspectors," Dean said. "We've just lost that."

But even after going public with his concerns about Spirit's quality control, Dean said there were reasons for optimism about the future. And he said that CEO Patrick Shanahan, who took over in late 2023, has a unique opportunity to change Spirit's culture for the better.

"What you really want is, you want someone to be able to play the hero," Dean said, saying Shanahan had a chance to play "the new sheriff in town."

"We need to make sure that there is no retaliation or intimidation," Dean said. "This culture of you're too loud, you'll be moved or silenced — that's got to go."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.