Friday, May 31, 2013

We Remember Air France 447 after Four Years

It has been four years. The evening of May 31/Jun 1, 2009  Air France 447, an A330-200, flew into a thunderstorm in the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) over the Atlantic Ocean north of Brazil. Its pitot tubes clogged with ice crystals for one minute.

Within that time the two first officers flying the airplane, while the captain was on a rest break, climbed nearly 3,000 feet, drained it of precious airspeed, stalled the airplane and lost control. Three an a half minutes later the A330 impacted the sea with devastating force, destroying the airplane and killing all 228 persons on board.

It would be easy to simply criticize the incompetence of the two first officers, but it is not as simple as that. Is it ever?

The inability of these pilots to instantly and competently deal with the loss of the autopilot, autothrust, and  airspeed indications, with degraded flight controls, combined with flight directors that provided inappropriate guidance, at night, in turbulent weather is a tragedy. It may be but a symptom of the level of back-to-basics flying skills possessed by a generation of pilots brought up following flight directors, whose idea of manually flying the plane is turning the heading knob.

If we fail to train our fellow pilots to manually fly the airplane under the worst conditions then we have failed them and those that trust us all.

There were numerous areas of misunderstanding that this accident brought out that cry for us to do a better job in educating our pilot population.

At least some of these pilots were unaware how to properly operate the weather radar to account for the low radar reflectivity of storms in the ITCZ. When the automation was lost, the pilot flying was unaware of the proper pitch attitude and power setting to maintain cruise flight.  He was unaware that the Alternate flight control law provided no protections, would maintain a dangerously high pitch attitude without further pilot inputs, and provided nearly double the normal  roll response to sidestick input. He did not understand that the synthetic voice announcing "STALL, STALL, STALL" meant that the nose must be pitched down, as it would not happen on its own, or that insufficient power exists at cruise altitude to constitute a stall recovery.
At least one of the two pilots misidentified the stall buffet for a high speed buffet, believing he had "some crazy speed." He even deployed the speed brakes momentarily, unaware that the wing on this airplane made Mach buffet extremely unlikely or perhaps not even possible.

They lost the discipline of accomplishing the abnormal procedure on the ECAM, and identifying who was flying the airplane. The synthetic voice announced "DUAL INPUT" while both pilots were trying to fly the airplane, sometimes with conflicting commands.

But as egregious as all these error seem, and indeed were, we must realize that these pilots were the product of their training and experience, as are we all. Like the loyal family dog who lets in the burglar, one cannot truly be expected to effectively handle a crisis situation, unless trained to do so.

We must therefore endeavor to train our fellow airmen to be able to hand fly that the airplane without the autopilot, to be aware of the normal pitch attitudes and power settings that the flight directors and autothrust allow us to ignore or never learn, to understand the weather we are surrounded by, the aerodynamics that keep us aloft, and the unique characteristics of our aircraft . We must not allow mastery of the Flight Management System to be confused with airmanship.

It is our sacred duty to each other and to every passenger that ever climbs aboard.

We have been warned.

For more information on all of these subjects, look for my upcoming book on the Air France 447 accident and its causes.  Sign up here to receive notice when the book is available for purchase, and selected excerpts. 


Karlene Petitt said...

Bill, Thanks for a great post. Many people are ready for your book. They want to know what happened! We all do!

Jeremy Carlisle said...

I definitely signed up for updates for the book and after having watched a documentary of this tragedy, it raises many questions in my mind. I definitely can't wait for this book to be released.

Thank you so much!