Air France crash blamed on pilot error

An Air France aircraft plunged into the Atlantic en route from Rio to Paris after a “series of failings” by pilots, according to a French air investigation report.

The pilots flying flight AF447 could have saved the plane after it temporarily lost its speed readings. Instead, they did the opposite of what was required, concluded France’s air investigation authority the Bureau d’Enqutes et d’Analyses (BEA), pulling the aircraft up to a height at which it stalled and fell from the sky at 10 000ft per minute, “The situation was salvageable,” Jean Paul Troadec, BEA director told reporters.

Air France, however, defended its pilots in a statement released at the same time as the report was made public, saying the altitude alert system had malfunctioned.

Friday’s report was the third into what caused the Air France Airbus 330 to crash into the ocean on 1 June 2009, killing all 228 people on board, after flying through turbulence.

The investigation confirmed that the failure of speed sensors, called pitot tubes, which froze up and failed had set off a catastrophic chain of events. The report said the pilots lacked training to deal with this situation.

Captain Marc Dubois (58) was resting when the Airbus began encountering turbulance, leaving co-pilots David Robert (37) and Pierre-Cedric Bonin (32) in the cockpit.

Bonin was at the controls when the speed sensors failed. When the autopilot reacted to the confused readings by disconnecting itself and handing control of the plane to the pilot, he reportedly hauled the aircraft up to 37 500ft in an apparent attempt to slow it down. As a consequence the A330’s stall warning sounded, meaning that the plane’s aerodynamics were not generating enough lift even though its twin engines were working normally.

Robert, Bonin’s co-pilot at the time, supposedly check-listing the emergency procedures, lost precious seconds calling the captain and failed to correct his colleague’s error as the plane plunged towards the sea, said the report. Dubois had returned to the cockpit seconds before the crash but was unable to save the situation as it hit the Atlantic belly first.

A French pilot told Le Figaro newspaper: “This manoeuvre [the pulling up of the plane] is totally incomprehensible. My colleague must have panicked.”

The BEA has produced safety recommendations including extra training on how to manually fly planes, including approaches to and recovering from a stall particularly at high altitudes. It also suggests planes be fitted with new video flight recorders and emergency data transmitters.

Both Air France and Airbus are being investigated for alleged manslaughter in connection with the crash. French officials insist the BEA’s findings do not amount to an official attribution of blame.

“The BEA establishes the facts and makes recommendations basted on those facts,” Environmental and Transport Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told French radio. “As to who is responsible, that is up to the courts.”

Representatives of the victims’ families have also rejected pilot error as the primary cause, suggesting the economic issues at stake may mean a playing down of mechanical failures.

Airbus said on Friday it “welcomed the latest BEA interim report on the AF447 accident as a further step towards gaining a full understanding of the chain of events that led to this tragic accident”.

“Airbus will continue to provide full support to the on-going investigation led by the BEA, so that the whole Air Transport Community can benefit from any lessons to be learnt from this event,” it added. — Guardian News and Media 2011

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