Saturday, May 28, 2011

Air France Flight 447

Suppose you found yourself in the cockpit of an airliner showing signs of stall and plunging rapidly toward the ground.  If you had never had a single flying lesson, and hadn't read about flying, you might be excused - but not forgiven - for pulling back on the stick to try to gain altitude.  Why would three professional pilots, presumably trained from their earliest flight experiences on how to deal with a stall by pointing the plane down, make that kind of error?  Yet that seems to be exactly the error they did make.

Cruising at 35,000 feet and nearly four hours into what seemed a routine overnight flight to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, an Air France cockpit crew got a stall warning and responded by doing what even weekend pilots know to avoid: They yanked the nose of the plane up instead of pointing it down to gain essential speed.


Apparently confused by repeated stall warnings and reacting to wildly fluctuating airspeed indications, pilots of Flight 447 continued to pull back sharply on the controls—contrary to standard procedure—even as the Airbus A330 plummeted toward the Atlantic Ocean, according to information released Friday by French accident investigators. The June 2009 crash took the lives of all 228 on board.


Andy Pasztor and Daniel Michaels' Wall Street Journal story, linked above, points the finger at aircraft automation.


The introduction of automation has made flying dramatically safer over the years. In the U.S., for instance, fatal accident rates are at record lows. But if pilots are taught to abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems, essential piloting skills can dull and aviators become too reliant on computers in emergencies.

That's particularly troublesome if onboard flight-control computers malfunction, disconnect or, as in the case of Flight 447, give conflicting information and warnings to pilots. "Pilots are starting to serve the automation, not the automation serving the pilots," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation of Alexandria, Va., an independent advocacy group championing enhanced training. "It's almost like we have to train the pilots to know how to triage these situations."

Well duh!  If the pilots are there only to deal with the emergencies, maybe that's what they ought to be trained to deal with!

In many ways this is similar to the recent crash near Buffalo NY where pilots made essentially the same fatal mistake.

Or maybe it would just be better to program the autopilots to deal with the emergencies - at least they wouldn't panic.