Lessons from AF447: back to basics

As more detail of Air France flight 447′s surreal last four-and-a-half minutes emerges in the latest interim factual report by the French investigation agency (BEA), we see yet another example of a crew that lost touch with the aeroplane it was flying.

It’s not difficult to see some predisposing reasons: it was 2 a.m. on a moonless night, not the time people are at their sharpest. A BALPA release just out warns people not to rush to judgement and to consider that fatigue may turn out to be a factor.

The BEA itself cites lack of high altitude handling training for the crew, and they were faced with suddenly having to carry out high altitude manual handling because the autopilot and autothrottle tripped out when faced with momentarily unreliable airspeed readings.

But when the autopilot did trip out, the pilot flying immediately said he had control and promptly made a nose-up input on his sidestick that led to a steep climb, even though moments earlier he had briefed the pilot not flying that climbing higher to avoid turbulence was not an option. So he knew the aeroplane was close to its performance limits, yet made an input that caused the aeroplane to go beyond them.

Then when the stall warning sounded the pilots made no verbal acknowlegement of it, nor did they apply stall recovery control inputs.

The BEA confirms that everything the aeroplane did from the moment the problems started was the result of crew control inputs. At any time during the critical period the appropriate control inputs could have resulted in recovery of control.

This blog is littered with pleas for regulators to update pilot training requirements to acknowledge how aeroplanes have changed and so has the pilot’s job. There is a consistent pattern now of pilot failings that lead to accidents.

No, it’s not “pilot error”, it’s lack of the skills needed for managing modern aeroplanes, and the reason for the lack of skills is the lack of appropriate training, and the reason for that is the regulators’ refusal to modernise the training parameters. The airlines are required to train pilots for 1950s aeroplanes and then to put them in charge of 21st century ones.

For the complete story and background go here…


7 Responses to Lessons from AF447: back to basics

  1. Erik Molberg 29 July, 2011 at 6:01 pm #

    This whole tragic accident must be put down to cost cutting. Promoted by Airbus, accepted by Airlines and approved by the Authorities. Cost cutting to the extent that high altitude instruction/recovery procedures from failures in instruments/engines/flight control,is marginal,or non existent. The reason being we “always use the autopilot”. The result is sadly AF 447 on the bottom of the Atlantic.

  2. Nevin 30 July, 2011 at 1:55 am #

    A terrible tragedy and an aviation accident that will be studied for a long long time.

    I was just wondering about something. Please correct me if Im wrong but don’t some fighter-jets have a “Recover” mode that a disoriented pilot can press – and the autoflight systems take over and return the machine to straight & level flight with healthy airspeed etc. I think planes like JAS39 Gripen and Sukhoi SU37 have this. Maybe they should put something like this in civil airliners?

  3. David Sims 30 July, 2011 at 7:16 am #

    What I don’t understand in all of this is why the autopilot disconnects just because of loss of airspeed. I would have thought that it would be much safer to revert to a basic attitude mode and warn the crew that it had done so. This would give them time to react to the instrument failures without having the distraction of having to manually control the aircraft’s flight path immediately.

    As an aside did you see that the CIAIAC released the final report on the Spanair crash at Madrid yesterday?
    Old manual aircraft but still the crew got it wrong!

  4. David Connolly 30 July, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Surreal indeed. And there I was thinking Belgium had a monopoly on the surreal ?. I stand corrected.
    But Bon Chance avec Air France carries on regardless. In compliance with their surrealism they issued this classic gem of Air France Vaudeville below.

    Air France issued a press release in direct response to the BEA’s executive summary stating on July 29 2011: “It should be noted that the misleading stopping and starting of the stall warning alarm, contradicting the actual state of the aircraft, greatly contributed to the crew’s difficulty in analyzing the situation. During this time, the crew, comprising both First Officers and the Captain, showed an unfailing professional attitude, remaining committed to their task to the very end. Air France pays tribute to the courage and determination they showed in such extreme conditions. At this stage, there is no reason to question the crew’s technical skills.”
    Voilla, Bravo, Encore !

    Once you pick yourself up from the floor nursing broken ribs from this howling wheeze, you’ll realize that an airline has not been in this much denial of the bleeding obvious since Egyptair was on the crew action cause of Egyptair 990’s oceanic crash on October 31 1999. CA-932,B-2468 was 3 hours late(at least not RIP late)last night from EDDF’s 25R, but this kept me laughing into the early hours. I used to think that German humour was no laughing matter. Apparently neither is French Farce, as I seemed the only one laughing. Still, I have faith in Woody Allen’s mantra of the difference between tragedy and comedy being time.

  5. grewal 31 July, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

    what kind of pilots or whatever you may call were on board this unfortunate flight who failed fail to recover a stalled aircraft in 38000 feet

  6. TL 31 July, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    At service ceiling, their options were few. The A330 didn’t fly itself to that altitude… Was it the Pope?

  7. Adam 1 August, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    “No, it’s not “pilot error”, it’s lack of the skills needed for managing modern aeroplanes, and the reason for the lack of skills is the lack of appropriate training, and the reason for that is the regulators’ refusal to modernise the training parameters. The airlines are required to train pilots for 1950s aeroplanes and then to put them in charge of 21st century ones.”

    I could not agree more with this statement, David. The requirements for an ATPL for set out around the Chicago Convention of 1944, and it is irresponsible of the industry in my opinion to continue to train pilots for A320s when the training is more suited to a 707 or DC8.

    Blaming pilots for accidents is so outdated and it angers me to see this still happening in modern times. I see that the Polish Air Force Tupolev crash has been pretty much attributed to ‘pilot error’.

    It is not just the duty of airlines to accept that accidents begin at the top; the regulator must also adopt this philosophy and implement changes to the pilot training curriculum. After all, why spend 150 hours learning to fly a light aircraft on your own, gain a CPL/IR, and then have to completely re-train in a multi-crew environment, which you will be doing for the rest of your career.

    I have argued before that whilst the ATPL is out-of-date (and I think we all agree with that), the MPL just doesn’t meet the requiremnts for an alternative. I believe a change is needed but, instead of creating a whole new licence which unfairly limits what type of aircraft you can fly and for whom, why not take the ATPL and update it with more emphasis placed on multi-crew training from day one.

    Critics of the MPL may suggest it is purely a cost-cutting exercise by reducing time in a real aircraft getting real experience. If this really is the case, then this licence needs to be scrapped because the majority of recent accidents occurred due to incorrect pilot response to a problem.

    We need our media and our foundations, unions and associations to push this agenda or we’ll keep seeing at least one big accident every two years where crews failed to react correctly, and the industry as a whole will continue to suffer because of this.