Crashed Lion Air flight almost crashed the day before

Yesterday, when we talked about the distressing similarities between last year’s Lion Air crash and the recent loss of another Boeing 737 Max 8 in Ethiopia, it was looking like the problem had been identified. A fault in the autopilot software was suspected of pushing the nose of the aircraft down during a steep ascent. But now, if anything, we’re even closer to having some sort of confirmation. The day before the Lion Air crash, the very same plane had experienced the same problem during takeoff and only narrowly avoided an identical type of disaster. (Bloomberg)

As the Lion Air crew fought to control their diving Boeing Co. 737 Max 8, they got help from an unexpected source: an off-duty pilot who happened to be riding in the cockpit.

That extra pilot, who was seated in the cockpit jumpseat, correctly diagnosed the problem and told the crew how to disable a malfunctioning flight-control system and save the plane, according to two people familiar with Indonesia’s investigation.

The next day, under command of a different crew facing what investigators said was an identical malfunction, the jetliner crashed into the Java Sea killing all 189 aboard.

So the Lion Air flight had an extra pilot in the jump seat (who was “deadheading” on that flight) who had already run into the same problem on a Max 8 and knew how to disable the problematic function in the autopilot. He was able to show the crew how to correct the problem, save the plane and continue on with their flight. That’s no doubt great news for all the passengers who probably never knew how close they came to crashing, but that’s where the ball was dropped.

All through this investigation, we’ve been asking the same question. It’s become obvious that pilots knew about this problem and some of them had even reported it. How did nobody further up the chain of command connect the dots and say something? That Lion Air flight was facing a potentially fatal encounter with the ground and the only thing that saved them was the coincidental presence of a pilot who had already needed to wrestle with the autopilot to save his aircraft.

Was there a report filed after they landed? If you come that close to losing a fully loaded 737 and it’s obvious that at least some of the crews flying that model aircraft have not been trained in dealing with this malfunction, shouldn’t that have been sitting off some alarm bells? And then, when the exact same plane went down the very next day after displaying the same irregularities during takeoff, how do you not ground the entire fleet immediately?

I’m guessing (or at least hoping) that the deadheading pilot who saved the previous day’s flight must have been sending up emergency red flags at that point, right? (And if not, he was completely derelict in his duties.) But the point is, the airlines using the Max 8s, Boeing, and the FAA all should have had enough information by that point to ground the rest of the Max 8s, shouldn’t they? And they could have done it long before the Ethiopia crash, potentially saving all of those lives.

The full investigation needs to do more than fix the faulty software. Some person or persons were, at best, highly negligent in not grounding the Max 8s sooner, and they will have to be held accountable.