Pilots are paid to fly planes. And yet in an age of increased automation, it is really flight computers that do the flying. The danger of forbidding pilots to take control on transatlantic flights - as many airlines now do, believing autopilots are smoother and more reliable - is made clear by a new report into the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, which killed all 228 people on board and was the worst accident in that airline’s history.
The report, released Thursday by the French aviation safety authority, found that the pilots showed a “total incomprehension of the situation.” It blamed the accident on human error, as well as technical malfunction. “The crew never grasped that they had stalled,” the lead investigator said, despite loud stall warnings and a red warning light on the instrument panel. “The situation was salvageable.”
Two hours after the Airbus A330 departed Rio de Janiero on an overnight flight to Paris, it hit a thunderstorm over the Atlantic Ocean. This caused ice crystals to disrupt the airspeed indicators, which in turn caused the autopilot to disconnect. However, all the pilots had to do was steer and keep the plane level. Instead, they pulled the nose so high that the aircraft stopped flying and stalled. It then fell for three and a half minutes before crashing into the sea.
The report sensibly recommends better cockpit design and more training for pilots, instructors and inspectors, especially in how to handle high-altitude flying when automatic systems disengage. Air France may also have to pay civil damages if it can be proven that the pilots failed to regain control of the undamaged aircraft. The airline - as well as Airbus, the plane’s manufacturer - is being investigated for manslaughter.
This is as stark a warning as the industry needs. Airlines must ensure that pilots can maintain their core skill set, so that minor instrument failures don’t turn into deadly disasters. Pilots cannot spend all their working hours sitting in the cockpit, unable to actually fly planes, and unprepared for avoidable accidents.