Flight 447: Air France on the Hot Seat


The French BEA (Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses) is livid, over the leaking of the cockpit voice recorder transcript from Air France’s Flight 447, which crashed in the South Atlantic in June of 2009. After reading the transcript, which was revealed in unknown entirety in a book called Erreurs de Pilotage, by Jean-Pierre Otelli, it’s easy to see why.Not to put too fine a point on it, the transcript reveals a degree of cluelessness and abrogation of command that you don’t often see in the professional airline world.But it’s not as if what the transcript reveals is a shocking revelation, although the degree of confusion is disturbing. In preliminary findings revealed last summer, The New York Times reported that the pilots in the two command seats were, improbably, never trained in hand flying a jet transport at high altitude. They were evidently intended to be system monitors and radio minders while the captain was temporarily out of the cockpit on a break. They got into trouble when the autopilot and autothrust dropped offline because of faulty airspeed data from iced-over pitot tubes.But BEA also said the bogus airspeed data lasted for no more than a minute of the Airbus’s four-minute descent. In other words, once the Captain returned to the cockpit, they had nearly two minutes to recover from the persistent stall they appeared to be holding the aircraft in. Why the Captain didn’t forthrightly either issue decisive commands or take control is one of the mysteries BEA will have to sort out.Wherever you come out on the ethics of Otelli’s premature publication of the transcript, he does raise a difficult question the French will have to answer. In his words, who’s going to be held responsible for this mess? Although BEA’s report isn’t due to be published until early next year, I wonder if his book is going to force action before that. I don’t think it’s exactly expecting too much for the pilots of a transatlantic airliner to be able to fly on raw data well enough to keep the wings level and avoid any stall, much less one lasting three minutes.Have we become so arrogant in the age of automation that, institutionally, we think it unnecessary to train people to actually hand fly on instruments? Are all Air France pilots so poorly trained, or was this crew simply an anomaly? And how about other airlines? It strains credulity to think that three ATPs in a glass cockpit can’t put their heads together to recover a stall. And what of Airbus? Are the displays and alarms badly designed enough to have contributed? Could this have happened to any pilots, no matter how well trained? We await BEA’s illumination.Ahead of that happening, I suspect Air France better have some answers and solutions long before the BEA makes its recommendations.Here are two links with both a summary of the BEA interim report and the complete document.