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Another Boeing-Linked Whistleblower Has Died: What to Know About Josh Dean and Spirit Aero

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Joshua Dean, a former quality auditor at Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems who had flagged safety concerns and alleged misconduct by the aircraft manufacturer, died Tuesday after a sudden and severe infection.

Dean is the second Boeing-linked whistleblower to have died in the last two months as the company has come under heightened scrutiny.

Dean, who was 45 and lived in Wichita, Kan., was in good health before he began to experience trouble breathing about two weeks ago and went to a hospital, according to the Seattle Times, which first reported on his death. Dean’s deterioration from that point, his aunt told the newspaper, was “brutal” and “heartbreaking.”

According to a series of public social media posts by Dean’s family, by April 21, he was in “very critical condition.” Dean tested positive for influenza B and MRSA, a difficult-to-treat bacterial infection, and developed pneumonia. He was intubated and put on dialysis as well as airlifted to another hospital to be put on an ECMO machine, a form of cardiac and respiratory life support. A CT scan showed that he had also suffered a stroke. Doctors were considering amputating his hands and feet, which had turned black from lack of oxygen.

“He is in the worst condition I have ever known or heard of. Even the hospital agrees,” Dean’s sister-in-law Kristen Dean posted on Facebook on Saturday, April 27. On Sunday night, Dean’s family posted that he was “giving up his fight” and “refusing to let them do any life saving procedures,” though his mother said she “told the doctor he doesn’t know what he wants, I’m sure he wants to live, he’s afraid, scared and depressed.” According to Dean’s mother, the doctor agreed and performed a bronchoscopy, a surgical procedure to investigate the lungs and airways. Dean’s family announced that he had passed on Tuesday morning. “His absence will be deeply felt,” his aunt posted.

“We’re not sure what he died of,” Dean’s mother, Virginia Green, told NPR, adding that she has requested an autopsy. “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.”

“Josh’s passing is a loss to the aviation community and the flying public,” Brian Knowles, a lawyer who represented Dean as well as the other whistleblower, John Barnett, who died in March, tells TIME. “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.”

Spirit AeroSystems, a company that was spun out of Boeing in 2005 and currently faces financial woes and an uncertain future, said in a statement: “Our thoughts are with Josh Dean’s family. This sudden loss is stunning news here and for his loved ones.”

Dean, who worked at Spirit since 2019 though was briefly laid off during the pandemic before returning in 2021, first raised concerns about improperly drilled bulkhead holes on some 737 Max planes at Spirit’s plant in Wichita in October 2022, according to a shareholder lawsuit that accused Spirit of concealing its production issues.

While Dean had reported the problem to several managers, the complaint alleged, the company hid it from investors for months until it became public knowledge in August 2023, when Boeing and Spirit announced a delay in plane deliveries due to the defect. According to testimonies from employees at Spirit, including Dean, workers had been instructed or pressured by supervisors to downplay the defects they found. 

“It is known at Spirit that if you make too much noise and cause too much trouble, you will be moved,” Dean told the Wall Street Journal in January. “It doesn’t mean you completely disregard stuff, but they don’t want you to find everything and write it up.”

Dean was fired by Spirit in April 2023, ostensibly over a separate issue he failed to identify as an internal inspector. Months later, he filed a complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration, alleging that he was made a scapegoat while Spirit did nothing to inform regulators and the public of the concerns he had flagged. 

After a high-profile incident in January in which a plug door on a Boeing 737 MAX 9 blew off during an Alaska Airlines flight, Dean’s former colleague Lance Thompson publicly backed Dean’s claims to the Seattle Times, saying that production deadlines were prioritized over safety at Spirit’s Wichita plant and that managers encouraged workers to hide defects. An audit by the FAA into Boeing and Spirit found in March that both companies failed to comply with quality-control requirements.

Dean had filed a complaint with the Department of Labor in November alleging wrongful employment termination by Spirit, a case that remained pending at the time of his death. “I think they were sending out a message to anybody else,” Dean told NPR in February: “If you are too loud, we will silence you.”

Dean’s death comes less than two months after the death of Barnett, another whistleblower who had spent years warning about lax safety standards at Boeing. Barnett was found in his truck with what authorities described as an apparent “self-inflicted gunshot wound,” in Charleston, S.C., on March 9, amid depositions he was giving related to a similar alleged retaliation dispute with Boeing. An investigation remains ongoing.

When asked about his two clients’ recent deaths, which have sparked conspiracy theories on social media, Knowles told TIME: “I do not want to speculate, and I would like to see the evidence from the investigating authorities.” But, he adds, “what society does not need is people in fear to speak up.”

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