Pilots lacked training on fatal flight, report finds

Fri, Jul 6, 2012, 01:00

THE PILOTS of Air France flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean three years ago killing all on board, including three young Irish doctors, lacked the right training to respond to a surprise scenario, the French aviation investigator said yesterday in its final report of the incident.

Flight 447 crashed on June 1st, 2009, en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro. The disaster remained shrouded in mystery until the recorders were retrieved. It is unusual for modern aircraft to crash during their high-altitude cruise, as most accidents occur on takeoff or landing.

The investigation uncovered “profound loss of understanding” in the cockpit in a moment of surprise, when the aircraft went into a stall and lost lift, the report found. The pilots lacked training for stall scenarios, and the authority recommended that flight simulation training be reviewed.

“The dual failure of the expected procedural responses shows the limits of the current safety model,” the French BEA authority said in its report. “The crew, whose work was becoming disrupted, likely never realised they were facing a ‘simple’ loss of all three airspeed sources.”

The body of one of the Irish victims, Jane Deasy, a 27-year-old doctor from Rathgar in Dublin, was recovered during the original search operation. Dr Aisling Butler (26), of Roscrea, Co Tipperary, and Dr Eithne Walls (28), from Ballygowan, Co Down, also died in the crash.

The crash of the Airbus SAS A330 wide-body prompted a two-year search for the flight recorders to help determine why the aircraft disappeared, killing all 228 people aboard.

The recordings revealed a state of confusion in the cockpit, with pilots not responding to stall warnings, highlighting a pressure point in modern aviation, where computers run most tasks and pilots are less trained in rapid crisis reaction.

Airbus, which helped fund the search for the recorders, has said that the aircraft was responsive throughout its descent into the Atlantic Ocean. The pilots were required to take over the controls after the auto-pilot disengaged because of faulty speed readings caused by iced-up sensors.

That occurrence alone could not explain a crash, Airbus has said. “Airbus has already started working at industry level to further reinforce the robustness of pitot probes requirements and actively supports related activities,” the manufacturer, based in Toulouse, France, said.

A report last year that laid out the pilots’ last minutes as they tried to get the situation under control pointed to confusion in the cockpit. That led France’s air crash investigator to recommend better pilot training, particularly in cases where automated computers flying the aircraft get knocked out, forcing the pilot to command the aircraft.

Air France has defended its pilots, saying confusing cockpit readouts are partly to blame.

“The BEA report describes a crew who acted in line with the information provided by the cockpit instruments and systems, and the aircraft behaviour as it was perceptible in the cockpit,” the airline said. “The reading of the various data did not enable them to apply the appropriate action.”

The flight-recorder readings revealed that chief pilot Marc Dubois (58) had been on a routine break when the autopilot disengaged, and that he at no point until the crash took back control of the jet. Instead, the two junior co-pilots, aged 37 and 32, shared the task of stabilising the aircraft, with the senior pilot giving occasional commands from the background.

Aviation safety specialists have said the trio were probably bewildered by erratic instrument readings and may have done the opposite of what was needed to keep the jet from crashing.

The pilots had only 3½ minutes to avert disaster as the jet fell towards the ocean at a speed of 180ft (55m) a second.

– (Bloomberg)