It’s been an exciting few weeks in the search for Air France 447. In just 20 days or so, searchers located the fuselage and both the cockpit and flight data recorders in 13,000 ft. of water on the floor of the South Atlantic. More victims are also still entombed in that fuselage as experts try to figure out how to recover them without destroying the bodies in the process.
Then last Friday came the French BEA transcript of the last few minutes of the flight before it pan caked into the water from seven miles above the ocean killing all 228 people aboard, as well as a few indisputable facts. Essentially, the airplane was out of control – completely stalled actually – almost from the moment the autopilot and autothrottles kicked off due to ice-clogged pitot tubes. The question of course is why were three experienced pilots – admittedly some more experienced than others – unable to make the aircraft fly at some point during the three and half minute drop to the water?
As I explained to a Fox TV News anchor Saturday afternoon, the scene inside the cockpit certainly would have been chaotic with darkness adding to the turmoil of heavy rain, turbulence and an array of warning lights and chimes all threatening certain death at the same moment. It would be tough for anyone to think clearly in that environment. Be that as it may, the pilots were paid and given the responsibility of being able to do just that … or were they?
Some reports claim the Air France pilots were never trained to deal with multiple failures surrounding events like they experienced that night. While it’s important to withhold final judgment of the cause of the 447 crash, it is clear that the pilots were either unable to recognize the attitude of the airplane at any point, or were unable to convince the aircraft to follow their commands. Did they hold the aircraft in the nose up condition then as the data recorder suggests? This is the part of the investigation we’ll need to wait for.
A Little History
Pilots losing control of an airplane is not a new event however. USAir lost a Boeing 737 on approach to Pittsburgh in 1994. The final words of the captain as the airplane nosed into the earth was “Help me pull,” thinking they were diving. Like the Air France accident, the USAir aircraft was stalled all the way to the ground.
An American Eagle crew lost control of their ATR-72 and crashed after their aircraft also stalled during an encounter with ice in 1994. In January 2009, a Colgan Air Dash 8 Q400 crashed on approach to Buffalo when that captain misinterpreted a stick pusher for a stall and caused the aircraft to fall from the sky killing all 50 aboard.
So was this an unfortunate technology-induced accident or was the crew merely as far behind the aircraft as some of these other unfortunate aviators? Sure these French pilots never recovered from the stall, but was it because they were not properly trained to handle this kind of chaos, or did the Airbus A330 try something on its own that these aviators were unable to remedy?
The question is not whether or not the pilots are responsible for the crash, for surely they are … pilots are always responsible, especially the PIC. A stalled wing is a situation every new pilot sees, almost from their first training flight.
The TV folks asked me, “Was there anything the pilots could have done to make their airplane fly again.” There was only one correct answer. “Absolutely. They could have reduced the angle of attack to a point where the airplane would once again fly.”
The real question is why?
Rob Mark, Publisher