Jump to content
MalaysianWings - Malaysia's Premier Aviation Portal
Georg Burdicek

Air France A330 F-GZCP Flight AF447 GIG-CDG Crashed Into the Atlantic Ocean All 228 POB Killed

Recommended Posts

If that is true, it would appear the AF A330 pilots only know how to fly it on autopilot! They have already forgotten the basics of flight! :(

Edited by flee

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Believe using junior cruising pilot to substitutive resting captain during cruise phase on long haul happened closer at home too.

Edited by KK Lee

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Believe using junior cruising pilot to substitutive resting captain during cruise phase on long haul happened closer at home too.


Saves $$. 1 major airline that i know of (not in Asia), has 3 FOs and 1 captain for long flights.


Back to the topic, i believe Airbus has a procedure for unreliable airspeed, something in which the pilot has to perform by memory. But then again, it's easy for us here to say what was right and what was wrong.

Edited by Walter Sim

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Unreliable airspeed is one of the difficult situations that a pilot has to face. Once this particular failure had been identified, a procedure based on pitch angles and thrust settings will ensure the a/c fly safely. The pilot must be aware not to stall and overspeed the a/c. All the procedures is done with memory. However, Airbus has developed a system to decrease the workload of the crew, which called the Back-UP Speed Scale (BUSS). This indication is based on Angle of Attack (AOA). The BUSS enables the crew to fly at a safe speed, by adjusting pitch and thrust. I'd say, the more automation system you have onboard, the more tougher to fly the a/c. :good:

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

From Reuters:


Black boxes indicate pilot error in Air France crash: report

Mon May 23, 2011 10:44pm EDT



(Reuters) - Preliminary findings from the recorders of an Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 have found that the pilots became distracted with malfunctioning airspeed indicators and failed to properly manage other critical systems, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter.


The crew did not follow standard procedures to maintain air speed and keep the aircraft's nose level after the Airbus 330 encountered some turbulence and unexpectedly high icing at 35,000 feet, the paper said.


Air France and Airbus were unavailable for comment outside business hours.


The Journal said the cockpit recorders show that the pilots apparently became confused by the alarms blaring from their instruments and despite trying to systematically respond to each warning, were unable to sort out the chaos and maintain a steady course.


The findings from the recorders, which are to be released on Friday, are expected to show that the twin-engine jet slowed dangerously after the autopilot disengaged.


The crash killed all 228 people on board Flight 447, which was on a scheduled flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.


(Reporting by Abhiram Nandakumar in Bangalore; Editing by Anshuman Daga)

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Air France Flight AF 447 Investigation

Recording Indicates Pilot Wasn't In Cockpit During Critical Phase


What happened on board the Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic en route from Rio to Paris? According to information obtained by SPIEGEL from the analysis of flight recorder data, pilot Marc Dubois appears not to have been in the cockpit at the time the deadly accident started to unfold.


The fate of Air France Flight 447 was sealed in just four minutes. That short time span began with the first warning message on one of the Airbus A330 aircraft's monitors and ended with the plane crashing into the Atlantic between Brazil and Africa, killing all 228 people on board.


Since last week, investigators from France's BEA civil aviation safety bureau have been analyzing the flight data and voice recordings extracted from the cockpit of the Air France flight that crashed on June 1, 2009 while traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. What they have learned from the recordings seems to suggest both technical and human failure....


Read more on Spiegel.de

Edited by S V Choong

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites



Air France Probe Shows Plane Stalled in 3.5-Minute Near Freefall

By Laurence Frost and Andrea Rothman - May 27, 2011

Air France Flight 447 crashed after the Airbus A330 lost speed and stalled before beginning a three- and-a-half minute plunge into the Atlantic Ocean that killed all 228 people on board, an investigation found.


The findings by the French BEA air-accident investigation bureau show the autopilot disengaged shortly after the pilots had alerted cabin crew of possible turbulence ahead. According to data from the flight recorders, the younger of the two men angled the jet’s nose higher, a position the aircraft maintained until its final impact.


The preliminary report sheds more light on the final minutes before the deadliest crash in Air France’s history, with the pilots scrambling to avert disaster as the jet hurtled toward the ocean surface at a speed of 180 feet (55 meters) a second. The data shows that the junior crew member, who was 32 and the least experienced of the three, was piloting the aircraft until less than one minute before the actual crash.


“The question is why the pilot kept giving nose-up inputs when the plane was in a stall,” said Paul Hayes, director of safety at Ascend Worldwide Ltd., a London-based aviation consultant company. “You should put the nose down to recover speed, and away you go.”


Breakthrough Recovery


The investigation achieved a breakthrough after the two flight recorders were recovered from 3,900 meters (12,800 feet) beneath the Atlantic and returned to Paris this month, two years after the jet disappeared into the night on June 1, 2009. All data and voice recordings from the two recorders were recovered in full, after being submersed for two years, the BEA said.


A low-speed stall occurs when an aircraft slows to the point where its wings suddenly lose lift, an incident pilots are trained to overcome. Earlier transmits from the jet had already shown that airspeed sensors, or pitot tubes, made by Thales SA (HO) had failed, presenting pilots with a sharp drop in speed readings on their displays after they entered ice clouds.


The analysis shows that the pilots had favored to climb above the approaching stormy clouds but were prevented from doing so because it wasn’t cold enough for the jet to ascend to that level. The crew alerted flight attendants that they should “watch out” as the approaching zone would move the jet around.


Resting Pilot


With the flight captain resting and the two co-pilots at the controls, the auto-pilots disengaged four hours into the flight. The pilots acknowledged that the speed sensors had failed as they responded by pulling up the nose of the aircraft, voice and data recordings show. A stall warning sounded in the cockpit, the BEA said.


According to the BEA, the co-pilots continued to increase the angle of climb, rising rapidly from 35,000 feet to 37,500 feet. When a third stall warning sounded, they continued to pull back on the controls with the engines set to full thrust and rose to about 38,000 feet, where the plane entered a stall.


Less than two minutes after the autopilot went offline, the chief pilot, Marc Dubois, returned to the cockpit, and the conversation shows he was with his colleagues during the remainder of the flight. It’s routine for pilots to take a break away from the cockpit on long-haul flights, Air France has said.


Last-Minute Control


Dubois never actually took back either his seat or the controls, according to the report. Dubois, 58, had almost 11,000 hours of flight experience, compared with fewer than 3,000 hours for the youngest member of the cockpit. The third member of the crew, 37, was given control in the last minute before impact.


Air France said the made a detour to avoid bad weather, and that the pilots showed professionalism, according to an e-mailed statement by the French airline.


With the plane’s nose still pointed up about 15 degrees, the jet began falling at about 10,000 feet a minute, rolling left and right. Almost one minute into the stall, the pilots had reduced engine thrust and tried pushing down on the controls to lower the nose.


Airspeed indications returned and the alarm sounded again as the stalled aircraft picked up some speed, though the plane continued falling until the first co-pilot commented that the aircraft was approaching an altitude of 10,000 feet. The final recordings show the aircraft had fallen back to a speed of about 123 miles per hour (198 kilometers per hour), the BEA said.


‘Technical Observations’


The BEA said its preliminary findings from the black-box data have not yet established any conclusions about the accident’s causes or led to any recommendations. An interim report is due in mid-July. Airbus, the world’s largest manufacturer of civil aircraft, said last week that it had no additional recommendations to operators of the A330 aircraft.


“What we’re publishing today are technical observations, including actions by the crew, which don’t explain the accident,” BEA chief Jean-Paul Troadec told reporters. “Understanding this chain of events and the reasons behind the crew’s actions is a complex task that is just beginning.”


The report concluded that the aircraft remained stalled during its descent, and that the engines were operational and responded to crew commands throughout. Dubois was among the victims recovered from the ocean’s surface in the weeks after the crash, along with debris that included most of the tail fin.


To contact the reporters on this story: Laurence Frost in Paris at lfrost4@bloomberg.net; Andrea Rothman in Paris at aerothman@bloomberg.net


To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at bkammel@bloomberg.net



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Looks like there is a difference between aerodynamic stall vs engine stalll...


Aviation industry sources said pilots appeared to have acted contrary to normal procedures in raising, rather than lowering, its nose in response to an alert that the plane was about to lose lift or, in technical parlance, 'stall'.


An aerodynamic stall is a loss of lift due to a high angle of attack, or angle between the plane and airflow. Pushing the control stick forward and lowering the nose adjusts for this.


It does not refer to a stall of the engines, which the BEA said had operated and responded throughout to crew actions.



Edited by Denny Yen

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

If that is true, it would appear the AF A330 pilots only know how to fly it on autopilot! They have already forgotten the basics of flight! :(


They could have been confused at that point of time. Yes with certain amount of thrust setting s and pitch angles, one can fly roughly a set speed. But what they went thru was bad weather, plenty of ECAM, dark night and in this weather even with a working pitot, the a/c cant maintain speed accuracy to 1 knot.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Crew response to A340 incident interests AF447 inquiry


French investigators are examining whether the crew reaction to an upset involving a transatlantic Air France Airbus A340 has parallels with the loss of flight AF447.


Air France said the aircraft "encountered unexpected and severe turbulence" about 1h 30min into the Caracas-Paris Charles de Gaulle service, as the A340 passed north of the West Indies.


The aircraft had been cruising at 35,000ft - the same altitude as AF447 - when it encountered a sharp increase in wind speed, taking the jet beyond its maximum operating Mach of M0.86 to reach M0.88.


A source close to the inquiry said there was a "temporary" overspeed warning and the autopilot was disconnected, "very likely" by one of the pilots. Nose-up inputs then followed.


The aircraft's pitch attitude increased to 11° and it climbed at about 5,000-6,000ft/min (25-30m/s) - a response bearing similarities to the sudden pitch-up and rapid climb of AF447 before the A330's fatal stall.


As with AF447, the aircraft reached 38,000ft (11,590m), while its speed reduced to M0.66, compared with a "green dot" speed - for best lift-to-drag ratio - of M0.78.


The source pointed out there was no malfunction of the pitot system but investigators are interested in the crew's response.


Air France said: "They are two different types of event. No technical fault with the speed probes was faced."


The carrier said the incident involved a "rare but not unique" event involving windshear and a "significant change of altitude" but added that the crew corrected the flight path and continued safely to Paris.


BEA said it had been notified by the carrier about the incident but cautioned against drawing any immediate links to AF447, not least because although the A340 and A330 are "very similar", they are "not the same".



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites



I think you have to reconsider your decision:-


THE Air Transport Rating Agency (ATRA) has named what it considers to be the ten safest airlines in the world. These are mainly American and European carriers, which makes the ranking quite different from those focusing on customer service and usually dominated by Asian and Middle Eastern airlines. Indeed, the Sydney Morning Herald points out that no airline is in both the ATRA top ten and the top ten in the Skytrax awards, which recognise “front-line product and service standards”.


ATRA came into being earlier this year, and this is the first rating in what it intends to be an annual series. It compiled its list not only from historic accident rates, but by assessing airlines on 15 criteria such as net financial result, average fleet age, in-house maintenance capability and dedicated full-flight simulators. It trumpets a similarity between its technique and that used by the World Health Organisation. Gulliver is no statistician; when he read that "[e]ach of the 15 criteria represents one dimension, and all dimensions are projected into one or more dimensions to construct the composite indicator", he swallowed hard. If any reader can offer a useful assessment of the method, please do so below.


It is interesting to consider how to respond to the rating. Would anyone choose, say, British Airways over Singapore Airlines because of the former's place in ATRA's list? After all, Singapore is considered a safe carrier. Flyers might, though, choose Singapore ahead of BA for its service. I suspect passengers are more used to the notion that the world's leading airlines offer varying degrees of comfort, than that they offer varying degrees of safety. ATRA's work might change that, but it's the accidents that stick in people's minds.


ATRA's ten safest airlines (in alphabetical order): Air France-KLM, AMR Corporation (American Airlines, American Eagles), British Airways, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways


Source: http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2011/08/airline-safety?fsrc=nlw|gul|09-06-11|gulliver




Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

KLM i can understand, but AF ? Definitely the biggest joke of the century! No matter how good the safety record of KLM is, but since KLM and AF is under the same airline holdings, Air France-KLM should not make the list no thanks to Air France extremely poor safety record! Heck, even Korean Air and Thai Airways are probably thousand times safer than Air France! :finger:

Edited by Isaac

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Human factors work group to analyze AF447 crash


The French Air Accident Investigation Bureau (BEA) has set up a human factors working group to analyze “all aspects connected to the conduct” of the Air France (AF) Airbus A330-200 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.


AF 447 was en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris Charles de Gaulle June 1, 2009, when it crashed into the ocean,killing all 228 passengers and crew (ATW Daily News, June 3, 2009).


The new working groupwill focus on analyzing “crew actions and reactions during the last three phases of AF flight 447 described in the third interim report, particularly in relation to the stall warning, cockpit ergonomics, and man-machine interface,” BEA said (ATW Daily News, Aug. 1). When the third interim report was released in July, BEA said it would set up a human factors working group.


The group comprises three BEA investigators specializing in human factors, a human factors aviation consultant, a psychiatrist specializing in risk analysis, an A330 test pilot and a type-rated A330 pilot. It may call on other experts and will consult Airbus and AF when required, it said.


Data from the aircraft’s black boxes that were recovered from the ocean indicated that the pilots on duty at the time of the crash ignored stall warnings and did not seem to recognize the aircraft was stalling, nor know the correct procedures to avoid a stall.



Edited by alberttky

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites



In the early hours of June 1 2009, Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris went missing, along with 216 passengers and 12 crew. The Airbus A330-200 disappeared mid-ocean, beyond radar coverage and in darkness. It took a shocked and bewildered Air France six hours to concede its loss and for several agonising days there was no trace. It was an utter mystery. No other airliner had vanished so completely in modern times. Even when wreckage was discovered the tragedy was no less perplexing. The aircraft had flown through a thunderstorm, but there was no distress signal, and the jet was state-of-the-art, a type that had never before been involved in a fatal accident. What had caused it to fall out of the sky?



The official report by French accident investigators is due in a month and seems likely to echo provisional verdicts suggesting human error. There is no doubt that at least one of AF447’s pilots made a fatal and sustained mistake, and the airline must bear responsibility for the actions of its crew. It will be a grievous blow for Air France, perhaps more damaging than the Concorde disaster of July 2000.


But there is another, worrying implication that the Telegraph can disclose for the first time: that the errors committed by the pilot doing the flying were not corrected by his more experienced colleagues because they did not know he was behaving in a manner bound to induce a stall. And the reason for that fatal lack of awareness lies partly in the design of the control stick – the “side stick” – used in all Airbus cockpits.


Anything to do with Airbus is important. The company has sold 11,500 aircraft to date, with 7,000 in the air. It commands half the world market in big airliners, the other half belonging to its great American rival, Boeing.



The mystery of AF447 has taken three years to resolve, involving immensely costly mid-Atlantic searches covering 17,000 square kilometres of often uncharted sea bed to depths of 4,700 metres. So remote was the place the airliner went down, in equatorial waters between Brazil and Africa, that it was five days before debris and the first bodies were recovered. Finally, almost two years later, robot submarines located the aircraft’s flight recorders, a near-miraculous feat that revitalised the biggest crash inquiry since Lockerbie.



Prior to the recovery of the recorders, the cause of the disaster could only be inferred from a few salvaged pieces of wreckage and technical data beamed automatically from the aircraft to the airline’s maintenance centre in France. It appeared to be a failure of the plane’s pitot (pronounced pea-toe) tubes – small, forward-facing ducts that use airflow to measure airspeed. On entering the storm these had apparently frozen over, blanking airspeed indicators and causing the autopilot to disengage. From then on the crew failed to maintain sufficient speed, resulting in a stall which, over almost four minutes, sent 228 people plummeting to their deaths.



But why? Normally an A330 can fly itself, overriding unsafe commands. Even if systems fail there is standard procedure to fall back on: if you set engine thrust to 85 per cent and pitch the nose five degrees above the horizontal, the aircraft will more or less fly level. How was it that three pilots trained by a safe and prestigious airline could so disastrously lose control? Either there was something wrong with the plane, or with the crew. Airbus and Air France, both with much to lose, were soon pointing accusing fingers at each other.

In July last year the French air crash investigation organisation, the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA), published its third interim report. For Air France the conclusion was crushing: the crew had ignored repeated stall alerts and kept trying to climb, instead of levelling off or descending to pick up speed. The A330 had become so slow that it simply ceased to fly. Its reputation on the line, Air France came as close as it dared to repudiating the finding. The pilots, said the airline, had “showed unfailing professional attitude, remaining committed to their task to the very end”.


But the airline’s case seemed thin. All indications suggested the aircraft had functioned just as it was designed. The black box recordings showed that the plane was responsive to the point of impact. The case against the pilots looked even worse when a transcript of the voice recorder was leaked. It confirmed that one of the pilots had pulled the stick back and kept it there for almost the entirety of the emergency. With its nose pointed too far upwards, it was little wonder that the Airbus had eventually lost momentum and stalled. But this analysis begs the question: even if one pilot got things badly wrong, why did his two colleagues fail to spot the problem? The transcript of increasingly panicky conversations in the cockpit suggests they did, but too late.


AF447 was four hours into its 11-hour overnight journey when it was overwhelmed by disaster. Many passengers, including five Britons, would have been trying to grab some sleep, only half aware of the turbulence buffeting the A330. There were eight children onboard, including Alexander Bjoroy, an 11-year-old boarder at Bristol’s Clifton College. Also travelling was Christine Badre Schnabl and her five-year-old son, Philippe. She and her husband had purposely chosen separate flights to Paris, possibly because of their shared fear of air crashes. He had taken off earlier with the couple’s three-year-old daughter.


Two hours in, Marc Dubois, the veteran captain, was heading for a routine break. His deputy, David Robert, a seasoned flier with 6,500 flying hours under his belt, was perfectly capable of coping with the tropical thunderstorm AF447 was flying towards. Pierre-Cédric Bonin was at the controls and, though the most junior pilot, he had clocked up a respectable 2,900 hours on commercial jets.


As the airliner entered the worst of the weather, Bonin told the cabin crew to prepare for turbulence. Eight minutes later, everyone on board would be dead. Bonin himself seems to have been spooked, calling attention to a metallic smell and an eerie glow in the cockpit. Robert reassured him that it was St Elmo’s fire, an electrical fluorescence not uncommon in equatorial thunderstorms. A few moments later the outside air temperature plummeted, the pitot tubes iced up and an alarm sounded briefly to warn that the autopilot had disengaged. From this moment, Bonin’s behaviour is strange. The flight recorder indicates that, without saying anything, he pulled back on the stick and, seemingly against all reason, kept the nose up, causing a synthesised voice to warn, “Stall! Stall!” in English as the airspeed began to drop dangerously. Robert took 20 or 30 seconds to figure out what was happening before ordering Bonin to descend. “It says we’re going up. It says we’re going up, so descend.” Seconds later Robert again called out, “Descend!” and for a few moments the plane recovered momentum and the stall warning ceased. But Robert was now anxious enough to call for the captain to return to the cockpit. Meanwhile, Bonin’s instinct was again to pull back on the control stick. He left it there despite the stall warning that blared out some 75 times. Instead of moving the stick forward to pick up speed, he continued to climb at almost the maximum rate. If he had simply set the control to neutral or re-engaged the autopilot, all would have been well.


A minute after the autopilot disconnected, Bonin muttered something odd: “I’m in TOGA, huh?” TOGA stands for Take Off, Go Around. Bonin was apparently so disorientated that he believed he was operating at low altitude, in a similar situation to a pilot having to abort a landing approach before circling for a second attempt. Standard procedure on abandoning a landing is to set engines to full power and tilt the aircraft upwards at 15 degrees. But Flight AF447 was not a few hundred feet above a runway. Within a minute it had soared to 38,000 feet in air so thin that it could climb no more. As forward thrust was lost, downward momentum was gathering. Instead of the wings slicing neatly through the air, their increasing angle of attack meant they were in effect damming it. In the next 40 seconds AF447 fell 3,000 feet, losing more and more speed as the angle of attack increased to 40 degrees. The wings were now like bulldozer blades against the sky. Bonin failed to grasp this fact, and though angle of attack readings are sent to onboard computers, there are no displays in modern jets to convey this critical information to the crews. One of the provisional recommendations of the BEA inquiry has been to challenge this absence.


Bonin’s insistent efforts to climb soon deprived even the computers of the vital angle-of-attack information. An A330’s angle of attack is measured by a fin projecting from the fuselage. When forward speed fell to 60 knots there was insufficient airflow to make the mechanism work. The computers, which are programmed not to feed pilots misleading information, could no longer make sense of the data they were receiving and blanked out some of the instruments. Also, the stall warnings ceased. It was up to the pilots to do some old-fashioned flying.

With no knowledge of airspeed or angle of attack, the safest thing at high altitude is to descend gently to avoid a stall. This is what David urged Bonin to do, but something bewildering happened when Bonin put the nose down. As the aircraft picked up speed, the input data became valid again and the computers could now make sense of things. Once again they began to shout: “Stall, stall, stall.” Tragically, as Bonin did the right thing to pick up speed, the aircraft seemed to tell him he was making matters worse. If he had continued to descend the warnings would eventually have ceased. But, panicked by the renewed stall alerts, he chose to resume his fatal climb.


Yet if Bonin was now beyond his knowledge and experience, the key to understanding the crash is Robert’s failure to grasp the mistake being made by his colleague. It is here that Airbus’s cockpit design may be at fault.


Like all other aircraft in the modern Airbus range the A330 is controlled by side sticks beside pilots’ seats, which resemble those on computer game consoles. These side sticks are not connected to the aircraft control surfaces by levers and pulleys, as in older aircraft. Instead commands are fed to computers, which in turn send signals to the engines and hydraulics. This so-called fly-by-wire technology has huge advantages. Doing away with mechanical connections saves weight, and therefore fuel. There are fewer moving components to go wrong, the slender electronic wiring and computers all have multiple back‑ups, and the onboard processors take much of the workload off pilots. Better still, they are programmed to compensate for human error.


The side sticks are also wonderfully clever. Once a command is given, say a 10-degree left turn, the pilot can let the stick go and concentrate on other issues while the 10-degree turn is perfectly maintained. According to Stephen King of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, it’s an admired and popular design. “Most Airbus pilots I know love it because of the reliable automation that allows you to manage situations and not be so fatigued by the mechanics of flying.”


But the fact that the second pilot’s stick stays in neutral whatever the input to the other is not a good thing. As King concedes: “It’s not immediately apparent to one pilot what the other may be doing with the control stick, unless he makes a big effort to look across to the other side of the flight deck, which is not easy. In any case, the side stick is held back for only a few seconds, so you have to see the action being taken.”


Thus it was that even when Bonin had the A330’s nose pointed upward during the fatal stall, his colleagues failed to comprehend what was going on. It seems clear from the transcripts that Robert assumed the plane was flying level or even descending. Robert himself was panicking: “We still have the engines! What the hell is happening? I don’t understand what’s happening.” Ninety seconds after the emergency began the captain was back in the cockpit demanding: “What the hell are you doing?” To which both pilots responded: “We’ve lost control of the plane!”


Dubois took the seat behind his colleagues and for a while was as perplexed as they were. It was pitch black outside, warning lights were flashing and some of the screens were blank. The men in front partially blocked his view and evidently he did not take much notice of a horizon indicator, which must have shown the plane was still being held nose up. The Airbus was soon falling through the night at 11,000 feet per minute, twice as fast as its forward travel. Only 45 seconds before impact Bonin blurted out that he had been trying to climb throughout the emergency, giving his colleagues the first indication of what had been going wrong. There is one final, dramatic exchange:


02:13:40 (Robert) “Climb… climb… climb… climb…”

02:13:40 (Bonin) “But I’ve had the stick back the whole time!”

02:13:42 (Dubois) “No, no, no… Don’t climb… no, no.”

02:13:43 (Robert) “Descend… Give me the controls… Give me the controls!”


Robert takes control and finally lowers the nose, but at that moment a new hazard warning sounds, telling them the surface of the sea is fast approaching. Robert realises the ghastly truth – that he hasn’t enough height to dive to pick up speed. The flight is doomed.


02:14:23 (Robert) “Damn it, we’re going to crash… This can’t be happening!”

02:14:25 (Bonin) “But what’s going on?”

The captain, now acutely aware of the aircraft’s pitch, has the final word:

02:14:27 (Dubois) “Ten degrees of pitch…”


There the recording ends.


Mercifully, data recordings and impact damage on debris confirm the Airbus was still more or less level when it hit the sea. Some of the passengers might have dozed throughout the descent; others may have attributed it to violent buffeting. Those in window seats would have seen only darkness. There is reason to hope that there was not too much panic on board, but this is small consolation.

It seems surprising that Airbus has conceived a system preventing one pilot from easily assessing the actions of the colleague beside him. And yet that is how their latest generations of aircraft are designed. The reason is that, for the vast majority of the time, side sticks are superb. “People are aware that they don’t know what is being done on the other side stick, but most of the time the crews fly in full automation; they are not even touching the stick,” says Captain King. “We hand-fly the aeroplane ever less now because automation is reliable and efficient, and because fatigue is an issue. [The side stick] is not an issue that comes up – very rarely does the other pilot’s input cause you concern.”

Boeing has always begged to differ, persisting with conventional controls on its fly-by-wire aircraft, including the new 787 Dreamliner, introduced into service this year. Boeing’s cluttering and old-fashioned levers still have to be pushed and turned like the old mechanical ones, even though they only send electronic impulses to computers. They need to be held in place for a climb or a turn to be accomplished, which some pilots think is archaic and distracting. Some say Boeing is so conservative because most American pilots graduate from flying schools where column-steering is the norm, whereas European airlines train more crew from scratch, allowing a quicker transition to side stick control.

Whatever the cultural differences, there is a perceived safety issue, too. The American manufacturer was concerned about side sticks’ lack of visual and physical feedback. Indeed, it is hard to believe AF447 would have fallen from the sky if it had been a Boeing. Had a traditional yoke been installed on Flight AF447, Robert would surely have realised that his junior colleague had the lever pulled back and mostly kept it there. When Dubois returned to the cockpit he would have seen that Bonin was pulling up the nose.


There is another clever gizmo on the Airbus intended to make life simpler for the pilots but that could confound them if they are distracted and overloaded. Computers can automatically adjust the engine thrust to maintain whatever speed is selected by the crew. This means pilots do not need to keep fine-tuning the throttles on the cockpit’s centre console to control the power. But a curious feature of “autothrust” is that it bypasses the manual levers entirely – they simply do not move. This means pilots cannot sense the power setting by touching or glancing at the throttle levers. Instead, they have to check their computer screens. Again Boeing have adopted a different philosophy. They told the Telegraph: “We have heard again and again from airline pilots that the absence of motion with the Airbus flight deck is rather unsettling to them.” In Boeing’s system the manual handles move, even in automatic mode.


All the indications are that the final crash report will confirm the initial findings and call for better training and procedures. With the exception of Air France, which has a vested interest in avoiding culpability, no one has publicly challenged the Airbus cockpit design. And while Air France has modified the pitots on its fleet, it has said nothing about side sticks.


It is extremely unlikely that there will ever be another disaster quite like AF447. Crews have already had the lessons drummed into them and routine refresher courses on simulators have been upgraded to replicate AF447 high-level stalls. Airbus has an excellent safety record, at least as good as Boeing, and the A330 is an extremely trustworthy aircraft. Flying is easily the least dangerous way to travel, far safer than a car. But while more of us take to the air each year, a single crash is enough to damage confidence.


Critics of side sticks may now argue that Airbus should return to the drawing board. A feature designed to make things better for pilots has unintentionally made it harder for them to monitor colleagues in stressful situations. Yet there is no sign that the inquiry will call for changes to the sticks and Airbus remains confident about the safety of its technology. It will resist what it regards as a retrograde step to return to faux-mechanical controls. The company is unable to speak openly during the investigation, but a source close to the manufacturer says: “The ergonomic systems were absolutely not contrived by engineers and imposed on the pilot community. They were developed by pilots from many airlines, working closely with the engineers. What’s more, it has all been tested and certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency and regulators in the United States, and approved by lots of airlines.”


As Captain King points out, a belief in automation and the elegantly simple side sticks in particular, is integral to the Airbus design philosophy: “You would have to build in artificial feedback – that would be a huge modification.”

A defender of Airbus puts it thus: “When you drive you don’t look at the pedals to judge your speed, you look at the speedometer. It’s the same when flying: you don’t look at the stick, you look at the instruments.”


There is a problem with that analogy. Drivers manoeuvre by looking out of the window, physically steering and sensing pressure on the pedals. The speedometer is usually the only instrument a motorist needs to monitor. An airline pilot flying in zero visibility depends upon instruments for direction, pitch, altitude, angle of climb or descent, turn, yaw and thrust; and has to keep an eye on several dozen settings and lights. Flying a big airliner manually is a demanding task, especially if warnings are blaring and anxiety is growing.

Multimillion-euro lawsuits could follow any admission of liability and it is certainly preferable from Airbus’s point of view that Air France should shoulder the blame for the night when AF447 plunged into the void.


However, no one would suggest that, when it comes to the aircraft we all rely on every day, commercial considerations should come anything but a distant second to safety.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

  • Create New...