Understanding the Latest Air France 447 Findings

We look at who's to blame, what instruments may have failed, and possible repercussions

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The newest report from the French investigation bureau BEA finds that confusion reigned in the cockpit as the doomed Air France flight 447 fell out of the sky and into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009. A combination of the crew's actions, malfunctioning equipment, and bad weather seems to have sealed its fate. A few facts of the disaster are clear through previous reports from the flight data indicators: The plane's autopilot shut off about two hours and 10 minutes into the flight, while the two co-pilots were at the controls as the captain rested. After that, the plane climbed to 38,000 feet, then fell with its nose up, hitting the water about two hours and 14 minutes into the flight. But the bureau's latest report brings up a whole host of new questions about why these things happened, including how much blame to put on the crew, what equipment may have malfunctioned, and what effects the new findings will have on pilot training and airplane design worldwide, as well as legal repercussions for Airbus, the plane's manufacturer, and Air France.

The blame game: Many headlines today blared variations on the theme of pilot error. Reuters went with "Rio-Paris crash probe finds pilots ignored warnings," while Sky News had the terse, "Fatal Air France Crash Was 'Avoidable.' " Others, such as The New York Times, focused on the crew's training in their headlines. The Times' Nicola Clark noted early in her story that the two co-pilots had no experience flying their Airbus A330 at high altitude. The pilots have been faulted for reportedly ignoring warnings that the plane had stalled. At Reuters, Tim Hepher's lede said the report found the pilots "ignored stall warnings and appeared to defy the manual" by pulling the nose of the plane up when the stall alarm went off, "something that has mystified aviation experts ever since." They're mystified because "the textbook way of responding is to point the nose downwards to capture air at a better angle."

But Hepher and others note that the pilots' response is indicative of an industry-wide problem of lax training, as autopilot takes over for crew at high altitudes. Time's Bruce Crumley addressed some of the criticism leveled against the pilots.

The BEA's report said pilots appear to have ignored repeated stall alerts, and never got around to warning cabin crew or passengers of an abnormal situation. That may have well been due to co-pilots having instead been focused on dealing with an increasingly urgent situation without all the information or experience it required. In addition to pilots not having undergone training for manual flight, the BEA also said they'd gotten no instruction on how to confront similar emergency situations at high altitudes.

At The Daily Beast, Clive Irving put the universal scope of the training problem into perspective.

The details in today’s report confirm that this crash should not be considered on its own. It is another in a series of disasters involving what is technically called “loss of control” – a problem which has become the number one cause of air crashes. The trend is so alarming that it was the subject of heated debate at a Flight Safety Foundation conference in Turkey earlier this year. 

Air France hasn't accepted the notion that its personnel is at fault. In its statement responding to the BEA report, the airline wrote that "At this stage, there is no reason to question the crew’s technical skills." It pointed to "the combination of multiple improbable factors" that lead to the disaster, including iced-over speed sensors (known as pitot tubes) that kicked off the autopilot, the plane's own heavy rolling, and malfunctioning instruments. "It should be noted that the misleading stopping and starting of the stall warning alarm, contradicting the actual state of the aircraft, greatly contributed to the crew’s difficulty in analyzing the situation."

Beware the hardware: Air France isn't the only body calling attention to reportedly malfunctioning or badly designed equipment as a major cause of the crash. Clark pointed out that pilots weren't aware of some crucial flight data because it simply wasn't on display. The plane's "nose was pointing upward from the airstream at about 16 degrees — far beyond the maximum angle of around 5 degrees that is considered to be safe at high altitudes, where the air is thin. But the pilots could not know this, the report said, because that information — known as the angle of attack — is not directly displayed in the cockpit." Inspectors recommended today that airplane manufacturers be required to display that data to pilots seated in the cockpit.

Then there's the ongoing question of the pitot tubes, which earlier reports have seized on as the part whose malfunction started the chain of events that led to the crash. The tubes' propensity to ice over and automatically shut off the autopilot has been well-documented. As Crumly noted today, there have been 32 reported cases of the same malfunction, which is much more dangerous than, say, your car's cruise control turning off. "In the thin air at cruise altitude, 36,000 feet, there is a narrow band of speed in which the airplane is stable, giving a crew very little time to recover if they get anywhere near a stalling speed."

Repercussions to follow: Airbus and Air France face manslaughter charges for the disaster, but those won't be prosecuted until the final report comes out. Meanwhile, both have portrayed the crash of Flight 447 as an opportunity to improve safety. Clark wrote that training techniques had changed for the better.

Since the Flight 447 accident, both Airbus and Boeing have modified their stall-recovery procedures with guidance from air-safety regulators in the United States and Europe. Safety experts say those procedures are now essentially the same for both aircraft makes, regardless of altitude, and instruct pilots in the first instance to lower the nose of the aircraft and, if necessary, to reduce thrust to avoid excessive acceleration.

Previously, the standard procedure for an approaching stall at low altitude was to raise the nose by around 5 degrees and to maintain full thrust.

Mr. Schramm, the Air France vice president, said that since the accident the airline had introduced supplementary training for all of its pilots to practice the new stall-recovery procedures. Though such training is still not required by safety regulators, all of Air France’s Airbus pilots have now completed one simulator session, he said, while all the airline’s Boeing pilots were expected to complete the training by the end of August.

The manufacturer and airline also face lawsuits from passengers and their families. Hepher included a quote from a lawyer representing victims' families, who complained about the BEA's apparent blaming of the pilots. The lawyer "said the BEA's emphasis on the role of the pilots was 'very questionable' and without equipment failure the situation would never have arisen. 'This is perhaps a way of BEA freeing the firms from their responsibility,' Olivier Morrice told Reuters."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.