It is still possible that the AF 447 recorders will be found.
But if they never are, can the industry afford not to explore what is likely to have happened, rather than what is merely possible?
The list of theoretical possibilities is, at present, so long that an assumption by the industry that any of them might have occurred would lead to a failure to take any action at all.
So what is “likely”? Let’s not get too philosophical here or we’ll end up nowhere useful.
The Airbus A330 was under control in the cruise when some airspeed indication problems occurred and the autopilot and autothrottle tripped out. This happened a couple of hours after midnight when the crew would have been at their deepest circadian low.
The flight control law also changed from normal into alternate, but the latter does not alter the way in which the crew would act to exercise control of the aircraft, nor how the aircraft feels to fly.
The next significant known and understood fact is that the aircraft hit the sea.
There are only two alternative generic scenarios that describe what happened between cruising altitude and the sea: either the aircraft, for an unknown reason, became actually uncontrollable; or it was controllable but the crew was unable to control it.
A study of airline accident history – both recent and going back decades – would suggest the latter is the more likely.
Take two recent nighttime accidents that also happened over the sea: pilot disorientation caused loss of control in the Flash Airlines accident (2004), and in the Adam Air case (2007) the cause was pilot fixation on troubleshooting a fault followed by pilot disorientation and loss of control. This cannot be ruled out as a cause in the AF 447 case.
But the question is, do we rule it in?
Yes, if that would move the industry to take action prevent such events in future.
That’s my opinion anyway, and here’s why.
Flash and Adam Air actually happened and the accident investigators revealed the cause, but practically nothing has been done since then about this phenomenon. There is increased interest in upset recovery training, but no agreement on how it could be done.
The fact that AF 447 might have been caused by the same phenomenon just adds additional urgency to the argument for action.
Still not convinced?
Flash and Adam Air were not the only ones. There was also the Gulf Air (2000) and Armavia (2006) A320 crashes. They, also, were caused by pilot disorientation at night over the sea. Nothing was wrong with the aeroplanes in either case.
And a week or so ago we had the Yemenia A310 accident at Moroni in the Comoros Islands. It went into the sea at night too, at about 02:00 local time, and the crew had not reported any problems with the aircraft.
Here are some linked truths:
- Loss of control accidents are becoming proportionately more common as a serious accident category;
- operating highly automated aircraft give pilots less practice at physical aircraft manipulation, and deprives them of practice in operating and thinking with raw data.
- pilot training is a soft target for cost cutting because there is no instant perceptible effect from reducing it, just an unquantifiable increase in risk.
- simulators are essential to affordable training, but they are best for teaching systems knowledge and management, and standard operating procedures.
- simulators are at their least good when training pilots in manipulative flying skills because their greatest shortcoming is their motion system. It cannot – and will never be able to - replicate reality.
- Handling training in simulators “does not transfer” to the real aeroplane (US DoT Volpe Center).
But what if simulator motion systems were able to improve, so that “flying” the box feels much closer to flying the real thing? This could enable pilots to be refreshed more effectively in the stick and rudder skills that they lose as a result of flying highly automated aircraft.
Well, there is such a system, and the industry – including the major simulator manufacturers – should give it a chance. Because if it were proven to deliver transferable training in pure handling skills – like landings in crosswind, for example, or recovery from extreme attitudes – it might have the potential to save lives and aluminium while adding only minimally to training costs.
It’s called Lm², I’ve written about it before, and it’s the brainchild of Filip Van Biervliet of Sabena Flight Academy – Development (SFA-D). It needs to be taken seriously because it delivers. Here’s my description of what I thought when I first “flew” it.
And now I’ve just flown it again (see below) on a Boeing 737-800 full flight simulator at CAE’s Hoofddorp training centre near Amsterdam Schiphol, and have no reason to change my opinion.
Now what is needed is for a research agency like NASA or the Volpe Center to run trials to see if, with Lm², manual flying skills training in a simulator really does transfer to the actual aircraft for the first time.
Because if it does, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this for aviation safety. One thing’s for sure, the industry cannot afford to revert to training in real aeroplanes, so the least it can do is to use the next best training solution.
Is Lm² the next best solution? There’s no excuse for not finding out.