A Shorter Guide to the Ethiopian Air Tragedy and the 737 Max 8

David Ryder / Reuters

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today I posted a very long and detailed account of what is known and (mainly) unknown about this past weekend’s Ethiopian Airlines tragedy.

Here is a much shorter Q and A guide.

  1. Q. Is this crash related to the Lion Air crash last year?
    A: No one knows. It was the same model of plane, in a similar phase of flight (soon after takeoff). The problem could have been a repeat of the runaway-automation cause of the Lion Air crash. It could be something else. No one knows right now.
  2. Q. What’s the most alarming possible reading of events?
    A: That would depend on an absolutely  crucial, but as yet unanswered (as far as I know), aspect of the Lion Air crash.
    There is little doubt that runaway automatic-control software was involved in that crash. For reasons detailed in my long post, the airplane’s software kept trying to push the plane’s nose down. The pilots kept fighting to pull it up. Eventually the pilots lost.
    So it’s evident that the pilots did not over-ride or turn off the aberrant system. Here’s the question that really  matters:
         Did the pilots not know how to turn it off? (Through lack of training or familiarity, etc.)
         Or were they not able to turn it off? (That is, had the override systems failed, so that there was no way to wrest control back?)
    The first explanation would mean a tragic training failure. The second would mean an uncontrollably self-destructive airplane. My assumption is that it’s the first—which would mean that this latest crash comes either from a similar training issue or involves something else. But if there’s even a possibility it’s the second, that is very serious indeed.

  3. Q. What next?
    A: I, purely personally, would not fear getting on a 737 Max 8 if I were scheduled to do so tomorrow. Statistically it’s riskier to get behind the wheel of a car. But that’s just me. (I also willingly fly small airplanes.) A lot of people need to work very hard right now to figure out what has gone on here.