Alps crash calls attention to Airbus safety history

The crash of the Germanwings flight in the Alps on Tuesday has focused attention on the safety record of the French aviation company Airbus, which manufactured the A320 plane.

Experts have pointed out similarities between the crash that killed 150 people and another incident involving an Airbus flight last November.

On that occasion, data from malfunctioning sensors triggered a sudden plunge by an Airbus plane shortly after it had taken off from Bilbao, in northern Spain.

The A320 plane, operated by German airline Lufthansa, unexpectedly lost height after its automated systems misinterpreted data. In that case, the plane had been flying on autopilot when the pilot noticed one of the displays was “increasing unusually rapidly”, according to the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation.

The display was reporting the plane’s “angle of attack” information, which concerns the alignment of the wing line and flight path. But the sensors were giving incorrect data. That faulty data triggered the activation of the aircraft’s ‘Alpha Protection’ system, which usually prevents stalling and the effects of wind shear.

When this was combined with other technical information, the plane responded by automatically ordering “a nose-down pitch rate”, which meant that in effect it went into a dive. “The nose of the airplane dropped further and the copilot counteracted this movement with the sidestick,” noted the report. “The copilot stated the airplane did not respond as expected and continued to descend.”

Frozen sensors
For at least 45 seconds, the pilot battled to stop the plane from dropping any further, as it plunged about 1200m. Only when the controlling sidestick was pushed as far back as possible were the plane’s systems overridden to allow it to fly horizontally again. It subsequently emerged that some of the plane’s sensors had frozen shortly after take-off and only defrosted as the plane came into Munich to land.

At the time, Airbus issued an “operational engineering bulletin”, which is a rapid-response temporary notice sent out by the manufacturer to the users of an aircraft. On December 14 2014, the European Aviation Safety Agency also sent out an emergency directive for overriding the “undue activation of Alpha Protection” for Airbus planes. The directive warned pilots to switch off sensors if they malfunction.

Some aviation experts believe that as plane operation systems have become more sophisticated, pilots have become increasingly dependant on them.

This can lead to serious difficulties if the systems develop a fault, as was the case with a 2009 Air France crash. In that case, an Airbus A330 crashed after leaving Brazil for an overnight flight to France. Frozen sensors led pilots to misinterpret the situation and crash the plane into the Atlantic. All 228 people on board were killed.

In October 2005, a British Airways Airbus A319 had a “major electrical failure” as it was leaving Heathrow on its way to Budapest. “This resulted in the loss or degradation of a number of important aircraft systems,” noted the subsequent Air Accidents Investigation Branch report.

Radio lost power
According to the report the pilot tried to transmit a mayday call to air traffic control but it was not received because the radio had also lost power. In this case, the pilots were able to reboot the systems and the plane continued its journey.

Airbus is responsible for manufacturing some of the most popular aircraft in the world, which log millions of incident-free hours in the air every year. It has delivered about 6 200 short-haul and medium-haul jets in the A320 group.

The Germanwings plane that crashed this week had been delivered to Lufthansa in 1991, three years after the first A320 entered service. The plane was transferred to Germanwings, and had flown about 58 300 flight hours in about 46 700 flights in the past 24 years. – © Guardian News & Media 2015


Strike-off case pulls in judge

Judge Mushtak Parker is implicated in an application to strike off his former partners. He is also involved in the fight between the Western Cape high court’s judge president and his deputy

One strike and you’re out – registrar tells unions

A municipal workers’ union is the first to be sanctioned for not following the new rule when deciding whether to go on strike

Press Releases

Dr Mathew Moyo’s journey to academic victory

The NWU's chief director for library and information services was appointed as a board member of the National Council for Library and Information Services.

UKZN pays tribute to Joseph Shabalala, Doctor of Music (honoris causa)

The university joins the global community in mourning the passing of legendary musician and founding member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dr Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala.

South Africa to be almost R 14-billion wealthier when SAB Zenzele BB-BBEE scheme winds down in April 2020

It’s the biggest BB-BEE FMCG payout in South Africa’s history, with a new scheme to be launched

UKZN vice-chancellor calls for perspective and creative engagement on the way forward

In addition to overcoming the deadlock between UKZN and students, a way must be found to reconcile the university's financial obligations and students' long-term needs.

Survey shows South Africans’ approval of president but not of political parties

According to the survey, 62% of South Africans think Cyril Ramaphosa is doing his job well, while 39% say no political party represents their views.

Andrew Makenete joins Africa Agri Tech as an event ambassador

Makenete has a wealth of experience in the agricultural sector

Is your company prepared for the coronavirus?

Companies should consider the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic when evaluating whether they are prepared for the coronavirus, says ContinuitySA.

Explaining the distribution of pension funds

Section 37C of the Pension Funds Act puts the ultimate decision-making responsibility in trustees' hands, says Fedgroup.