Most aviation experts were wisely urging caution after the second crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 in just five months. Rushing to conclusions until a full analysis of the wreckage and the data from the black boxes could be conducted could have compounded the problem. Still, the similarities between the two crashes were clearly disturbing, with problems arising shortly after takeoff during calm weather. Now the second lost plane’s black box data has been retrieved, and while it’s still not entirely conclusive, the fault may wind up being found in the autopilot, which multiple pilots had complained about before. (NY Post)

Black box data from the Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed a week ago, killing all 157 people aboard, shows a “clear similarity” to the Lion Air disaster five months ago, an official said Sunday.

Both of the jets were Boeing 737 MAX 8s.

Ethiopia’s transport minister, Dagmawit Moges, made the claim to reporters and said parallels between the two crashes will be the “subject of further study during the investigation.” The government plans to release its findings within one month, Moges said, without elaborating on what the similarities are.

“The black box has been found in good condition. That enabled us to extract almost all the data inside,” she said.

We’d previously heard that radar tracking showed the Ethiopian Airlines flight apparently rising and falling erratically as if the pilots were struggling to maintain control. The same pattern was observed in the Lion Air crash five months earlier. The short description of the issue seems to be that the autopilot incorporates a built-in stall detection routine. If it senses that the aircraft is rising too quickly and/or at too steep of an angle, it will automatically push the nose back down to build up speed and prevent a stall.

Unfortunately, the plane typically does rise at a fairly steep angle after taking off (and is capable of doing so), so the pilots suddenly find themselves heading back toward the ground before gaining much altitude. This leaves them fighting with the autopilot for control of the aircraft. It’s not an ideal position to find yourself in, to say the least.

Assuming this turns out to be the core of the problem, the entire global fleet of roughly 350 Max 8s is going to have to remain on the ground until a fix can be developed and implemented in every plane. While that is going on there are several questions that will have to be answered.

First, how did Boeing approve this plane and ship it with that sort of flaw in the autopilot? It was already being suggested as early as 2012 that Boeing had too much control over the vetting of their own aircraft during the FAA approval process. As it turns out, the FAA was already conducting an examination of the Max 8’s certification on the Sunday before the most recent crash. But the plane was already in service all over the world by then.

Even if we want to look past Boeing’s own internal review process, how did the FAA certify this model plane and miss a serious problem of this nature? The Department of Transportation launched an investigation into the FAA’s approval of the Max 8 after the Lion Air crash.But the planes were still allowed to fly while the investigation rolled out.

And finally, once the second plane had gone down and information about the previous pilots’ complaints had come to light, why did it take so long for US airlines to stop flying them? There are three different actors who will need to answer for this one. Boeing could have issued an advisory calling on everyone to ground the Max 8s while the latest crash was investigated. The FAA could have ordered the planes grounded, citing the already ongoing investigation and the second crash. And even absent an order from the FAA, Southwest and American Airlines could have voluntarily pulled the planes from service.

Thankfully there were no more crashes during that delay, but all the parties involved will need to do some soul-searching and provide answers to the public. Otherwise, public confidence in the fleet is going to remain depressed and their business prospects will suffer for it.