Air France Airbus A330 accident and an airworthiness directive

Thumbnail image for AF A330 fin.jpg

France’s BEA has said what it so far has to say about AF447 and has probably wisely not taken the discussion much further forward. Agency head is Paul-Louis Arslanian, who’s going to be a pretty busy guy as he’s still in charge of the ANZ A320 investigation, and he’s once again being exceptionally open about what’s going on. Today’s press conference was lengthy and conducted in both French and English.

Some points. Obviously an exceptionally difficult investigation lies ahead but the ramifications of an unsolved mystery are pretty horrendous for Airbus and I have little doubt that France Inc will move heaven and earth to pin down the cause.

And what might that be? Well, as I’ve been saying on umpteen TV and radio shows all week, we really don’t know if weather caused this.

Personally I don’t think it can have been the primary cause, but it will be a surprise if it’s not a factor of course.

Meanwhile I’m curious about this airworthiness directive which mandated operators to insert information in the A330 flight manual about what to do if you suffer double pitot tube heat failure (or radome failure – and in fact unreliable airspeed indications for any reason.) It was issued after several reports of aircraft suffering exactly that situation in heavy icing.

Here’s what is claimed, plausibly I think, to be a report of what was experienced on one A330 when exactly that happened. Not a happy situation.

And here’s French magazine Le Point, which has been doing a good job on this story, citing Air France sources as saying AF447 did in fact experience icing on the probes. As many of you will have seen, here’s a superb analysis of the weather at the time by one Tim Vasquez, who’s new to me but maybe not to you.

I’m frankly surprised to hear of that problem affecting a current generation widebody, but that’s aviation I suppose. If you can shed light on this issue then please leave a comment.

Finally I think Arslanian was fairly deliberately playing down the chances offinding the recorders and/or substantial wreckage. In fact theprecedents are pretty good – you have to look hard for instances inwhich recorders are not found, even in oceanic water. 

Examples:

  • South African Airways Boeing 747 Combi ‘Helderberg’ lost in deepwater in 1987. CVR found, although not FDR, after a markedly less thanperfect salvage operation.
  • Birgenair Boeing 757 FDR found by US Navy in 7,000ft of water
  • TW800 – OK, not deep, but big wreckage field and the pinger had broken off the FDR

  • China Airlines 747 in 2002 – both found
  • TransAsia ATR 72 in 2002 – both found …and there are others.

I realise this water is very deep indeed, but technology has moved onquite a bit since some of those earlier ones. And I don’tthink money will be an object.

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20 Responses to Air France Airbus A330 accident and an airworthiness directive

  1. MB June 4, 2009 at 12:11 am #

    Clearly something caused loss of control and descent into the water ! There is a crash here, where pitot tube icing was part of the cause http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austral_L%C3%ADneas_A%C3%A9reas_Flight_2553 but so far, total speculation on what started the sequence of events. The ACARS data & the pattern of the weckage might give someone with better knowledge of the systems on an A330 a clue as to what happened – but not clear if the computer faults (or probe inputs) started the problem or were a result of the problem.

  2. Dr Warwick D Raymont June 4, 2009 at 4:44 am #

    Only speculation, but I wonder wheteher, with both pitots iced up, a low speed sensed by the flight computer might cause the aircraft to power up and nose down? Or, even worse, flaps lowering to avoid an incorrectly perceived imminent stall? Both could have disasterous effects but, as I said, this is pure, uninformed speculation.

  3. Peter June 4, 2009 at 9:39 am #

    How about the October 7 incident, on Qantas flight QF72 ?

  4. Christopher Dye June 4, 2009 at 1:46 pm #

    The time has come to ground the 330/340s until the cause of the current crash, and those recent incidents leading up to it, is determined with reasonable certainty and corrected. Boeing and AB have always disagreed about the degree to which flight control should be electronic, and up until now reasonable people could differ over which appraoch, Boeing’s or AB’s, was the best and safest. Not any more.

  5. Valdez June 4, 2009 at 7:06 pm #

    Very intemperate, and inappropriate comment Christopher Dye. I don’t think even a Boeing employee would say that.

    As a regular flyer, and someone with an interest in aircraft, the only plane I’d remotely worry about is the MD11, and I’d still get on it.

  6. E.A.Kumar June 5, 2009 at 7:21 am #

    There was a incident which occured on an Airbus A 300 B4 on a flight from Chennai, India to Singapore where the crew experienced unusual problems like the aircraft getting erratic speed indicaions as well as flight control loss which points to a possibility of icing having blocked the Pitot tubes,however as there was not much investigation into this incident the real cuse of this malfunction was never revealed.Perhaps some readers on this website could throw some light on the real causes.

  7. E.A.Kumar June 5, 2009 at 7:22 am #

    There was a incident which occured on an Airbus A 300 B4 on a flight from Chennai, India to Singapore where the crew experienced unusual problems like the aircraft getting erratic speed indications as well as flight control loss which points to a possibility of icing having blocked the Pitot tubes,however as there was not much investigation into this incident the real cuse of this malfunction was never revealed.Perhaps some readers on this website could throw some light on the real causes.

  8. Kieran Daly June 5, 2009 at 9:56 am #

    Thank you everyone. I have now posted again with much more information on this and it does seem that the likelihood of erroneous speed indications, very possibly because of icing, is high on the agenda.

    Regarding Christopher Dye’s comment, I don’t think it’s true that Boeing and Airbus significantly disagree at all. They both already use fly-by-wire with some manual back-up and they’re both sticking with it on the even more automated A350 and 787.

    I think you can be pretty certain, for example, that the THY Boeing 737 loss at Amsterdam would not have occurred in an aircraft with current fly-by-wire technology and envelope-protection. (Which is absolutely not to suggest that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the 737.)

  9. PR June 5, 2009 at 1:07 pm #

    This accident stands out from many as it indicates to a serious design flaw in the aircraft. In this case have a modern airliner flying in cruise in conditions which the aircraft is designed to fly and withstand. However some type of failure (no need to precise exactly what) has caused it fall out of the sky. The type of failure needs to be identified as modern aircraft of this type will continue to fly in similar or even more extreme conditions. If the cause of failure cannot be established from the outcome of the investigations of this accident, it is imperative that it be established by test flights of the aircraft type in a similar environment and flight conditions.

  10. AC June 5, 2009 at 10:20 pm #

    Dear KD and Co.,

    Does “ASI mismatch due to blocked pitot” ring a bell ?
    Remember Birgenair ?

  11. James June 6, 2009 at 5:15 am #

    Everyone wants to find the “golden bolt”. The one part that spelled disaster. More often that not its a series of unforseen problems that cause an airliner to crash. Its too soon, and especially so with no data, to even speculate as to the cause. Let the recovery take its course and be patient. Air travel is safe because we investigate in a scientific manner, not a media frenzy.

  12. jason June 7, 2009 at 4:09 am #

    Without any experience in this industry but having information and analysis from various aircraft problems, one very small problem namely the pitot tubes often seem to have severe results. It is well established that the accidental covering of pitot tubes during cleaning and for other reasons has resulted in incorrect airspeed indications and total loss of aircraft. Possibly the ANZ 300 which had just come from a repaint prior to being handed back to ANZ, a total loss,is the result of obscured pitot tubes. Many other aircraft have been lost from this primary cause. Why is it that some form of different device mechanical or otherwise cannot be fitted to offer the pilot more of a chance to determine if the information he is receiving is correct or otherwise

  13. Dave Scott June 8, 2009 at 11:21 am #

    An airliner should not be flown if there is a problem with the pitot system which can result in the loss of airspeed indication at all pilot stations. Particularly if the loss of airspeed indication could occur at high altitude. Since the airplane is being flown in a narrow range between stall and mach buffet.

    It takes time to qualify a changed pitot system, the change may need to be test flown for a hundred hours on the flight test airplane to insure performance specs are reached. Then more time still to get the modification kits installed on all the in service airplanes.

    Apparently the this model and other airbus aircraft require this modification?

  14. Gary Kevorkian June 9, 2009 at 7:07 pm #

    Is it possible that tail structure failed due to erroneous elect signal to rudder for max deflection since lightning was a factor hand in hand with flight computer thinking airplane is at lower altitude?

  15. abvillian June 11, 2009 at 4:00 am #

    French blew it big time. They were late at the scene, making fools of brasilian army and their findings, to who they lost the lead in investigation, their “nucelar” sub comes to the scene after only ten or so days. They spent precious time calculating their actions and comments, wording of their statements, while jeopardising lifes of people boarding those flawed planes.

    That is the worst of the worst investigations I’ve seen so far.

    At the same time Air buses catch on fire, freeze, loose altitude for unknown reasons, tremble in a storm, and brasilians keep pulling the dead and debri from the ocean…

  16. Roger H June 14, 2009 at 11:19 pm #

    Two questions:
    1) Why can’t the black boxes be ejected from the top of the plane (like an ejector seat), based on pressure/saline sensors?
    2) Why can’t a cockpit camera continuously stream video to the destination airport?

  17. Don Rogers June 16, 2009 at 3:16 pm #

    I received this information this morning, and am stunned to learn that composite materials are being used in high stress points of the airframe, including hinges. I seriously doubt that the pilots are aware of this practice and their test results. I am not a proponent of one side or another, except on the side of safety. In this communique, I tried to black out any possible political content, so the focus could remain on the issue of saving lives only… but the format on this web-page would not permit that, and as it is a quote, I cannot delete any portions. My soul grieves over the avoidable loss of so many precious lives, and the unending suffering of the loved ones as their universe has forever been damaged by this tragedy.

    Object : Air France Accident

    Friends,

    We have all been exchanging information on the regrettable Air France
    accident including the recovery of the vertical stabilizer and several views
    about the comparison to the American Airlines crash involving the break away
    of the tail section in that accident. I just received this copy of an
    exchange that discusses the actual construction involved in that portion of
    the A 300 series. A whole new element for consideration is raised here by a
    person who appears to be well qualified. I thought you would each be as
    interested to read this as I was.

    Subject: Air France Accident

    Received this interesting discussion
    about Airbus 300 Series aircraft resulting from discovery of the
    vertical stabilizer from the recent Air France accident.

    Subject: Air France Accident: Smoking Gun Found

    A Brazilian Naval unit reportedly found the complete vertical
    fin/rudder assembly of the doomed aircraft floating some 30 miles from
    the main debris field. The search
    for the flight recorders goes on, but given the failure history of
    the vertical fins on A300-series aircraft, an analysis of its
    structure at the point of failure will likely yield the primary cause
    factor in the
    breakup of the aircraft, with the flight recorder data (if found)
    providing only secondary contributing phenomena.

    The fin-failure-leading-to-breakup
    sequence is strongly suggested in the attached
    (below) narrative report by George Larson, Editor emeritus of
    Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.

    It’s regrettable that these aircraft are permitted to continue in
    routine flight operations
    with this known structural defect. It appears that safety finishes
    last within Airbus Industries, behind national pride and economics.
    Hopefully, this accident will force the issue to be addressed,
    requiring at a minimum restricted operations of selected platforms,
    and grounding of some high-time aircraft until a re-engineered
    (strengthened) vertical fin/rudder attachment structure can be
    incorporated.

    Les

    ———(George Larson’s Report)———————

    This is an account of a discussion I had recently with a maintenance
    professional who salvages airliner airframes for a living. He has
    been at it for a while, dba BMI Salvage at Opa Locka Airport in
    Florida. In the process of stripping parts, he sees things few others
    are able to see. His observations confirm prior assessments of
    Airbus structural deficiencies within our flight test and aero
    structures communities by those who have seen the closely held reports
    of A3XX-series vertical fin failures.

    His observations:

    “I have scrapped just about every type of transport aircraft from
    A-310, A-320, B-747, 727, 737, 707, DC-3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, MD-80,
    L-188, L1011 and various Martin, Convair and KC-97 aircraft.

    Over a hundred of them.

    Airbus products are the flimsiest and most poorly designed as far as
    airframe structure is concerned by an almost obsession to utilize
    composite materials.

    I have one A310 vertical fin on the premises from a demonstration I
    just performed. It was pathetic to see the composite structure
    shatter as it did, something a Boeing product will not do.

    The vertical fin along with the composite hinges on rudder and
    elevators is the worst example of structural use of composites I have
    ever seen and I am not surprised by the current pictures of rescue
    crews recovering the complete Vertical fin and rudder assembly at
    some distance from the crash site.

    The Airbus line has a history of both multiple rudder losses and a
    vertical fin and rudder separation from the airframe as was the case
    in NY with AA.

    As an old non-radar equipped DC4 pilot who flew through many a
    thunderstorm in Africa along the equator, I am quite familiar with
    their ferocity. It is not difficult to
    understand how such a storm might have stressed an aircraft structure
    to failure at its weakest point, and especially so in the presence of
    instrumentation problems.

    I replied with this:

    “I’m watching very carefully the orchestration of the inquiry by
    French officials and Airbus. I think I can smell a concerted effort to
    steer discussion away from structural issues and onto sensors, etc.
    Now Air France, at the behest of their pilots’ union, is replacing
    all the air data sensors on the Airbus fleet, which creates a
    distraction and shifts the media’s focus away from the real problem.

    It’s difficult to delve into the structural issue without wading into
    the Boeing vs. Airbus swamp, where any observation is instantly
    tainted by its origin. Americans noting any Airbus structural issues
    (A380 early failure of wing in static test; loss of vertical surfaces
    in Canadian fleet prior to AA A300, e.g.) will be attacked by the
    other side as partisan, biased, etc. ”

    His follow-up:

    One gets a really unique insight into structural issues when one has
    first-hand experience in the dismantling process.

    I am an A&P, FEJ and an ATP with 7000 flight hours and I was
    absolutely stunned, flabbergasted when I realized that the majority of
    internal airframe structural supports on the A 310 which appear to be
    aluminum are actually rolled composite material with aluminum rod
    ends.
    They shattered.

    Three years ago we had a storm come through, with gusts up to 60-70
    kts., catching several A320s tied down on the line, out in the open.

    The A320 elevators and rudder hinges whose actuators had been removed
    shattered and the rudder and elevators came off.

    Upon closer inspection I realized that not only were the rear spars
    composite but so were the hinges. While Boeing also uses composite
    material in its airfoil structures, the actual attach fittings for
    the elevators, rudder, vertical and horizontal stabilizers are all of
    machined aluminum.”

    Unquote

  18. Don Rogers June 16, 2009 at 3:29 pm #

    I received this information this morning, and am stunned to learn that composite materials are being used in high stress points of the airframe, including the hinges that secure the elevator and rudder assemblies. I seriously doubt that the pilots are aware of this practice and their test results. I am not a proponent of one side or another, except on the side of safety. In this communique, I tried to black out any possible political content so the focus could remain on the issue of saving lives only, but the format on this web-page would not permit that… and as it is a quote, I cannot delete any portions. My soul grieves over the avoidable loss of so many precious lives, and the unending suffering of the loved ones as their universe has forever been damaged by this tragedy. Please don’t let this information be swept under any bureaucratic chair.

    Object : Air France Accident

    Friends,

    We have all been exchanging information on the regrettable Air France
    accident including the recovery of the vertical stabilizer and several views
    about the comparison to the American Airlines crash involving the break away
    of the tail section in that accident. I just received this copy of an
    exchange that discusses the actual construction involved in that portion of
    the A 300 series. A whole new element for consideration is raised here by a
    person who appears to be well qualified. I thought you would each be as
    interested to read this as I was.

    Subject: Air France Accident

    Received this interesting discussion
    about Airbus 300 Series aircraft resulting from discovery of the
    vertical stabilizer from the recent Air France accident.

    Subject: Air France Accident: Smoking Gun Found

    A Brazilian Naval unit reportedly found the complete vertical
    fin/rudder assembly of the doomed aircraft floating some 30 miles from
    the main debris field. The search
    for the flight recorders goes on, but given the failure history of
    the vertical fins on A300-series aircraft, an analysis of its
    structure at the point of failure will likely yield the primary cause
    factor in the
    breakup of the aircraft, with the flight recorder data (if found)
    providing only secondary contributing phenomena.

    The fin-failure-leading-to-breakup
    sequence is strongly suggested in the attached
    (below) narrative report by George Larson, Editor emeritus of
    Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.

    It’s regrettable that these aircraft are permitted to continue in
    routine flight operations
    with this known structural defect. It appears that safety finishes
    last within Airbus Industries, behind national pride and economics.
    Hopefully, this accident will force the issue to be addressed,
    requiring at a minimum restricted operations of selected platforms,
    and grounding of some high-time aircraft until a re-engineered
    (strengthened) vertical fin/rudder attachment structure can be
    incorporated.

    Les

    ———(George Larson’s Report)———————

    This is an account of a discussion I had recently with a maintenance
    professional who salvages airliner airframes for a living. He has
    been at it for a while, dba BMI Salvage at Opa Locka Airport in
    Florida. In the process of stripping parts, he sees things few others
    are able to see. His observations confirm prior assessments of
    Airbus structural deficiencies within our flight test and aero
    structures communities by those who have seen the closely held reports
    of A3XX-series vertical fin failures.

    His observations:

    “I have scrapped just about every type of transport aircraft from
    A-310, A-320, B-747, 727, 737, 707, DC-3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, MD-80,
    L-188, L1011 and various Martin, Convair and KC-97 aircraft.

    Over a hundred of them.

    Airbus products are the flimsiest and most poorly designed as far as
    airframe structure is concerned by an almost obsession to utilize
    composite materials.

    I have one A310 vertical fin on the premises from a demonstration I
    just performed. It was pathetic to see the composite structure
    shatter as it did, something a Boeing product will not do.

    The vertical fin along with the composite hinges on rudder and
    elevators is the worst example of structural use of composites I have
    ever seen and I am not surprised by the current pictures of rescue
    crews recovering the complete Vertical fin and rudder assembly at
    some distance from the crash site.

    The Airbus line has a history of both multiple rudder losses and a
    vertical fin and rudder separation from the airframe as was the case
    in NY with AA.

    As an old non-radar equipped DC4 pilot who flew through many a
    thunderstorm in Africa along the equator, I am quite familiar with
    their ferocity. It is not difficult to
    understand how such a storm might have stressed an aircraft structure
    to failure at its weakest point, and especially so in the presence of
    instrumentation problems.

    I replied with this:

    “I’m watching very carefully the orchestration of the inquiry by
    French officials and Airbus. I think I can smell a concerted effort to
    steer discussion away from structural issues and onto sensors, etc.
    Now Air France, at the behest of their pilots’ union, is replacing
    all the air data sensors on the Airbus fleet, which creates a
    distraction and shifts the media’s focus away from the real problem.

    It’s difficult to delve into the structural issue without wading into
    the Boeing vs. Airbus swamp, where any observation is instantly
    tainted by its origin. Americans noting any Airbus structural issues
    (A380 early failure of wing in static test; loss of vertical surfaces
    in Canadian fleet prior to AA A300, e.g.) will be attacked by the
    other side as partisan, biased, etc. ”

    His follow-up:

    One gets a really unique insight into structural issues when one has
    first-hand experience in the dismantling process.

    I am an A&P, FEJ and an ATP with 7000 flight hours and I was
    absolutely stunned, flabbergasted when I realized that the majority of
    internal airframe structural supports on the A 310 which appear to be
    aluminum are actually rolled composite material with aluminum rod
    ends.
    They shattered.

    Three years ago we had a storm come through, with gusts up to 60-70
    kts., catching several A320s tied down on the line, out in the open.

    The A320 elevators and rudder hinges whose actuators had been removed
    shattered and the rudder and elevators came off.

    Upon closer inspection I realized that not only were the rear spars
    composite but so were the hinges. While Boeing also uses composite
    material in its airfoil structures, the actual attach fittings for
    the elevators, rudder, vertical and horizontal stabilizers are all of
    machined aluminum.”

    Unquote

  19. Pamela Griffiths July 10, 2010 at 11:20 pm #

    That’s it! I am NEVER going to get on an AIRBUS again having read that experts assessment of the damage that the use of composite materials in the A300 series is causing.

    I am Australian, so do not have a vested interest in Airbush or Boeing from a nationalistic point of view but Boeing Dreamliner will in my opinion always be a safer bet to fly on that A380 which they have made as light as it is by using composites at the expense of safety.

    As for the ‘cover up’ culture at EADS the Airbus parent company I am not at all astonished as I remember well the corrupt officials at EADS who took a payout of 22 million euros on their stocks before announcing an 18 month delay in the production of some the A 300 series, about eight years.

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