The facts are astounding: On a moonless night, 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, aboard Air France Flight 447 the autopilot of an Airbus A330, one of the most technologically advanced of commercial passenger jets, disengages due to icing of pitot tubes that are used to ascertain the airspeed of the aircraft.
This triggered a series of events in the cockpit that led to three pilots, including the Captain with over 11,000 hours flight time, being unable to comprehend that the plane was in a stall, and losing altitude for three and a half minutes, until it crashed into the Atlantic with a loss of all 228 passengers and crew.
How Could This Happen?
Loss of control is what happens when an airplane develops a flight envelope that will not permit it to remain flyable. A stall is one manifestation of loss of control. The nose of the plane is elevated at an angle and the airspeed drops to the point where the air is not moving fast enough over the wings to provide lift, which allows a plane to fly.
How could three experienced pilots in a mechanically functional aircraft (other than the airspeed indicator) not grasp for three and a half minutes what was wrong with their aircraft and how to recover a normal flight envelope?
On David Learmount’s FlightGlobal blog, commenting on loss of control aviation accidents, he notes, “Before Air France 447, [loss of control] had already become the biggest killer accident category.” He lists nine incidents that have occurred since 2000 that have all been loss of control accidents and resulted in 1,128 deaths.
Not Enough Of The Proper Training
Mr. Learmount places the blame on the airlines and their regulators. It is a training issue; aircraft computer systems have become so sophisticated that a pilot has little to remain occupied with during a flight. (Recall the Northwest flight that overflew their destination of Minneapolis-St. Paul because both pilots were distracted with scheduling issues on their laptops.)
During many flights, computers do everything and most of the time, they do it correctly. As a result, pilots gain hours, but may not gain experience. Therefore, when something goes wrong, pilots may make mistakes; with all the alarms going off, and the computer offering no data or conflicting data, the pilots appear to lack the training necessary to choose the right solution.
A New York Times article titled “When Disaster Threatens, Instinct Can Be a Pilot's Enemy” quotes author Jean-Pierre Otelli, when discussing pilot reactions to a stall, and the urge to pull up on the controls, as saying “'It’s a reflex that’s almost uncontrollable.” While that may be the first instinct, in the three plus minutes that AF 447 fell, at least one pilot should have been sufficiently trained to control that urge.