AF447 Report Triggers Alarm Bells

The first new safety recommendation from French investigators July 29 is to make sure pilots receive training on manually flying planes at high altitude and recovering from stalls.

The latest report from France's aviation accident investigation agency, the Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses pour la securite de l'aviation civile (BEA), is causing aviation experts to note that pilot training may have to be revised worldwide to ensure today's commercial pilots know how to fly their planes manually at high altitudes and how to recover from a stall. The co-pilots of Air France Flight 447, which crashed June 1, 2009, after flying into a high-altitude thunderstorm off the northeastern coast of Brazil, had no training for this, BEA's July 29 report states.

The Airbus A330 was flying on autopilot at 35,000 feet when its air speed indicators showed incorrect readings because of icing, and a co-pilot then took the wrong action -- a nose-up input, which caused the plane's stall warning to sound. The plane climbed to 38,000 feet, and at one point the stall warning sounded continuously for 54 seconds. The plane was rolling severely and falling at a rate of 10,000 feet per minute, but its nose-up angle of attack was not displayed correctly to the pilots, the report says.

BEA issued 10 new safety recommendations July 29. Three concern training for manual airplane handling and better definition of the role of a flight's relief captain; one asks regulatory authorities to evaluate the relevance of requiring that an angle of attack indicator be directly accessible to pilots; one asks authorities to require that aircraft used for public transport be equipped with image recording devices making it possible to observe the entire instrument panel; and two concern how flight data is transmitted during an emergency so the aircraft in that situation can be easier to locate.

When AF447 crashed, no emergency message had been sent by its crew, and the crew made no emergency announcement to the passengers, BEA said. The aircraft's wreckage, including its black boxes, was finally found in April 2011 and raised from the seabed soon afterward.

Air France posted a statement July 29 saying the BEA report "sheds further light on this tragedy that has deeply affected Air France and the entire air transport community.

"Air France wishes to pay tribute to the memory of the passengers and crew who lost their lives and extends its most sincere thoughts to their families," it continued. "From the flight recorder data, it has been established that the combination of multiple improbable factors led to the disaster in less than four minutes: the icing of the Pitot probes was the initial event that led to the disconnection of the autopilot, the loss of associated piloting control protections and considerable roll movements. After the manoeuvres carried out by the crew in deteriorated and destabilizing piloting conditions, the aircraft stalled at high altitude, could not be recovered and struck the surface of the Atlantic Ocean at high speed. 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. Work will now continue to understand the causes and the various technical and human factors that contributed to the events leading to this disaster. It is important to understand whether the technical environment, systems and alarms hindered the crew’s understanding of the situation.

"The BEA has also issued various recommendations for the European authorities in charge of air safety that Air France has already implemented or will implement as soon as possible. In addition to the elements that will be brought to light by the BEA’s final report and the work of the legal inquiry, we know that the measures already taken have considerably improved the safety of air transport, which is the most important aspect for the air transport industry. These measures prevent such an accident happening again."

A response posted by Airbus simply says the aircraft manufacturer remains committed to cooperating fully in the investigation of the crash.

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