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Pilots battled to save Air France jet

2011-08-08 15:46

Paris - "What do you think? What do you think? What should we do?"

The 37-year-old Air France co-pilot with over 6 000 flying hours was running out of ideas as a stall alarm bellowed through the Airbus cockpit for the sixth time in exactly two minutes.

His junior colleague with two years on the job was already in despair as he battled to control the jet's speed and prevent it rocking left to right in pitch darkness over the Atlantic, on only his second Rio de Janeiro-Paris trip as an A330 pilot.

"I don't have control of the plane. I don't have control of the plane at all," the younger pilot, aged 32, said.

The captain was not present and it was proving hard to get him back to the cockpit, where his more than 11 000 hours of flying experience were badly needed.

"So is he coming?" the senior co-pilot muttered, according to a transcript released on Friday. Light expletives were edited out of the text here and elsewhere, according to people familiar with the probe into the mid-Atlantic crash on June 1 2009.

Gasping for air

The 58-year-old captain and former demonstration pilot had left 10 minutes earlier for a routine rest. In his absence the aircraft had begun falling at more than 200km an hour.

"Hey what are you -," he said on entering the cockpit.

"What's happening? I don't know, I don't know what's happening," replied the senior co-pilot, sitting on the left.

With the benefit of black boxes hauled up 4 000m from the ocean floor just two months ago, investigators now say the aircraft had stopped flying properly and entered a hazardous stall, as its 362m² of wings gasped for air.

The crew moved control sticks in every direction during their four-minute ordeal - and sometimes contradicted each other as they tried to save the aircraft and its 228 passengers and crew.

At one point they could not decide whether they were climbing or falling after flying for minutes through a wall of ice particles that blocked the aircraft speed sensors.

Investigators baffled

In total the stall alarm went off 11 times - the last of those only overridden by a new and even more ominous direction to "pull up" as the pilots ran out of time and space to recover.

Investigators say they are still baffled as to why the pilots ignored the triple alarm - a synthetic "stall, stall" voice, a noise like crickets and a red warning light.

They appear to be working on the theory that the pilots recovered clumsily from one problem to do with icing, only to lurch into another one - a stall - that proved their doom.

Air France disputes this and says instruments went haywire.

The solution to a stall is to lower the nose to grab air.

Instead the junior pilot yanked back, thinking the aircraft was going too fast. Pulling up reduces speed. "I've got a problem I don't have vertical speed. I don't have any indication."

Court battles

From behind, the captain was first to voice a dawning truth.

"I don't know but right now we're descending," he said.

Now the young pilot pushed forward and the stall receded.

His gesture lasted barely a second but may be pored over in courts for years as the aircraft's manufacturer Airbus will argue it shows the aircraft was responsive and able to recover. Air France says the aircraft overwhelmed properly trained pilots with a blizzard of confusing signals and misled them because of a "trap" caused by erratic warnings.

The crew have not been officially named.

Building stress

As the aircraft hurtled lower, a pattern of professional directions started to fray, replaced by a rush of questions:

"What's the altitude?"

"What do you mean what altitude?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm descending right?"

The younger pilot appeared increasingly stressed and was subjected to some backseat driving - yet he was left to fly.

(Captain) "Get your wings horizontal."

(First co-pilot) "Level your wings."

(Second co-pilot) "That's what I'm trying to do."

Flight 447 entered its final minute at 10 000 feet, having plummeted from 38 000.

"What the - how is it we are going down like this?" asked the junior pilot.

"See what you can do with the commands up there, the primaries and so on," the senior co-pilot said.

By nine thousand feet, the situation must have been dire.

"Climb climb climb climb," ordered the senior co-pilot.

"But I have been pulling back on the stick all the way for a while," observed the younger pilot. In a stall, however, pilots point down to fix the stall first and only then climb to safety.

The captain interjected: "No, no, no, don't climb."

Senior co-pilot: "Ok give me control, give me control."

The aircraft was at 4 000 feet, its nose up quite sharply.

"Watch out you are pulling up," prodded the captain.

"Am I?" said the first co-pilot.

"Well you should, we are at 4 000," said the young pilot.

Focused to the end

It is not possible to tell whether the crew finally alighted on what most experts call the right solution, but now they only had one choice, which was to think about avoiding water.

Both pilots pulled on their sticks as far as they could.

The computer spoke. "Sink rate. Pull up, pull up, pull up."

"Go on," the captain urged, "pull".

"We're pulling, pulling, pulling, pulling," said number 3.

The transcript showed the three men remained fully focused on trying to right the aircraft throughout the final four minutes. At no point did they discuss the possibility they and their passengers were about to die.

The last words that could be made out from the veteran captain were remarkably calm, reverting to cool-headed jargon.

"Ten degrees pitch," he appears to have said.

Less than half a second later, the recording stopped.

Comments
  • redfugue - 2011-08-08 16:14

    These Air France stories are so frightening. It must have been horrible to have a machine you think you know betray you and not respond to your instructions. The comparison of the plane's wings "gasping for air" is absolutely horrifying as you realize that all the passengers on board would succumb to the same fete within moments. I'm a little more nervous these days when I fly, especially on those little domestic planes that seem to veer this way and that during the final approach. The combination of ears popping, flaps engaging and sudden change in the plane's hum are enough to invoke those fyn poepies! Jirre mia!

  • raymondh - 2011-08-08 16:52

    If the diabolical lack of service we are receiving from Air France at the moment, is any indication of their ability to service their aircraft or train their crew, then I would recommend that no one flies with them again. Scary stuff. R. Hopkins

  • robert.bramel.1 - 2012-07-05 00:44

    Frozen pitots had occurred many times before on the AB 330/340 and the loss of autopilot is certainly not unexpected, yet this crew never came close to following the procedure required when this happens. According to the excellent NOVA documentary, when an autopilot disengages and airspeed is not known, the established procedure is something like "set engine power at 85 percent and set elevator trim at 5 degrees". With these settings, presumably the plane will fly and never go too fast or too slow. These settings require only two, always available, inputs. The crew never came close to getting it right and for this the blame falls squarely on Air France. The crew was grossly unprepared and should never have been in the cockpit. What is the purpose of simulator training if not to prepare flight crews for just this sort of anticipatable anomaly?

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