Back to Air France 447: Who Was at the Controls?

By James Fallows

Long ago, before I got diverted onto other duties and themes, I posted a variety of theories about the Air France 447 crash in 2009, including the new info provided by the discovery of the "black box" at the bottom of the sea. I've received a lot of material that I haven't yet posted, about weather and pilot competence and black boxes and Airbus design and Air France procedures.

A message that came in yesterday, from an experienced airline pilot who is willing to be quoted by name, may finally get me started working through the various contending theories. This one comes from Andy Danziger, who describes his background below, and it involves some differences in training between US and European fight crews. It starts by disagreeing with part of my assessment early on. Danziger says:

>>I'm a 17,000+ hour international Boeing 767 Captain for a US Airline and wanted to make a few comments regarding the accident.
 
I very much disagree with your [mine - JF's] statement, 
"The "head pilot was resting" theme probably doesn't matter. Many news reports led off with the info that the flight's captain -- the most experienced, lead pilot on the flight -- was taking his scheduled rest when the problems began, and that the least experienced of the plane's three pilots was at the controls as problems intensified. Anything is possible, but my guess is that it didn't matter. All members of this kind of crew would be highly trained. Moreover, the captain was back in the cockpit within 90 seconds of serious trouble (with the autopilot disengaging), so he would have been part of the discussion about what to do. Deciding on the proper reaction would be more important than executing it with hands on the controls, so the captain would presumably have been involved when it mattered".
The absence of the Captain from the flight deck is actually quite significant for several reasons. While passengers like to think that the first officer on their flight and the international relief pilot or "Cruise Captain" (the other first officer on board or third pilot in this case) as they're sometimes referred to are highly experienced, fully qualified and just paying their dues until they have the seniority to upgrade to Captain there are often many differences in their experience level, training and skill set. In this case the senior first officer was reasonably experienced with 6547 total flight hours (4,479 of them in the A330/340) but the "junior" first officer had 2,936 hours of flight time with 807 hours in the A330/340. For the record, the 58 year-old captain, who came to the cockpit from his break halfway through the event had 11,000 hours of which 1,747 were in the A330/340.
 
Neither First Officer had gone through Captain upgrade training where they would have learned to think "outside the box" and would have been tested for more advanced problem solving abilities (and greater flying skills). Additionally, since Air France, like most of the rest of the European airlines, tends to do mostly "ab initio" training, chances are that neither one of these first officers have ever been a captain anywhere. In the US major airline "new hires" are highly experienced former regional airline Captains and or military pilots. Most arrive at the majors with at least as much time as the AF senior first officer and then undergo a typical 10 or more year apprenticeship as a first officer before starting on their Captain upgrade training. Based on total flight times and times in type, it's obvious that neither of the AF pilots had any other experience. Remember, varied experiences equate wisdom and the only experiences either of the first officers had came from Air France.
 
To put experience into perspective, I'd be willing to bet that there isn't a first officer at any major airline in the United States with less flight time then the senior first officer had in this case, and the huge majority have much more. Although at some point more time doesn't make much of a difference, a pilot with under 3000 hours is in his airline infancy at least as far as the learning curve goes. If AF is typical of other European Airlines, the "Cruise Captain" is not even allowed to fly below 10,000' and never makes any takeoffs or landings. The senior first officer's flight experience was reasonable but he probably had little useful support from his Cruise Captain. Neither pilot could have had an abundance of wisdom at their experience levels.
 
Finally the "plunge" into the Atlantic lasted about 3 1/2 minutes. The Captain arrived on the flight deck at between 1 1/2 and 2 minutes into the event. There was little if any time for him to have even gotten spatially oriented let alone have been of much help, coaching, giving instructions or otherwise. I can assure you, I can fly a lot better from the left seat than from behind either of the two chairs. Assuming that the pilots had conflicting stall and overspeed indications simultaneously and probably never trained for it, they didn't stand a chance.
PS - This information from Spiegel Online, "Air France's Airbus fleet has an aircraft loss rate of 1.26 per 1 million flights, That is four times higher than other airlines' average (0.3 losses per million flights). Three Air France Airbus jets have crashed since 1988. A fourth Airbus jet belonging to Air France's later subsidiary Air Inter also crashed"....

My own independent evaluation of accident statistics (in the Western World), puts Air France as the third, not second most deadly airline. Aeroflot is number 1, Turkish Airlines is number 2 and Air France is number 3. Number 2, number 3, your choice, but you can keep 'em.<<

Lots of other theories to come, I will highlight them in the next few days, and then what they seem to add up to.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/08/back-to-air-france-447-who-was-at-the-controls/243586/