Air France 447 Crash Report Reveals a Flaw in Modern Aviation

The  report by France's aviation authority, the BEA, cites technical faults and subsequent pilot error as the cause of the deadly crash in June 2009.  As a 30-plus-year international Boeing pilot, I feel qualified to offer a few observations.

Commercial aviation has a history of progressing in a particular direction before tragedy proves that that direction is unsafe.  A good example is the airship, which seemed perfect for international passengers until a series of disasters proved them unsuitable for commercial travel.  Seaplanes also once seemed the direction to go, with water landings possible around the globe, but the unpredictability of the ocean put paid to that idea.  The crash of Air France has revealed that aviation is again moving in an unsafe direction.

We have progressed to modern jet aircraft whose computer flight control systems are so capable that they can be used in every phase of flight except takeoff.  Following airliner manufacturers' safety recommendations, most airlines now require mandatory use of the auto-flight systems whenever possible.  Pilots routinely go months without actually manually flying their machines.  They get to practice physical handling and laid out emergency procedures only in a simulator.

Until the recent past, commercial pilots used to love manually flying their machines and sharpening their handling skills.  The more they practiced, the more confident they became in their ability to handle the jet in all phases of flight.  But in the name of flight safety, commercial pilots have now been largely reduced to computer operators -- in old pilot talk, button-pushers and knob-twirlers.

But is it in fact safer?

The most alarming part of the crash report was that the Air France pilots failed to recognize the situation they were in despite numerous clues on their basic flight instrumentation.  They allowed themselves to become distracted by faulty computer messages and warnings.  Their attempts to save the jet were completely the opposite of what was needed.  In short, they forgot how to fly.

In the modern world of aviation, instead of computerized flight systems being an aid, pilots have become totally dependent on them.  A pilot's natural instinct is to immediately go back to basic flying skills when presented with contradictory information (such as happened on AF447).  This instinct has been replaced by doing nothing in the hope that the computer will sort itself out or at least tell the pilot what to do.  In fact, many pilots have so little hands on experience that they are only too happy leave the flying to the computer.  In AF447, it resulted in a disaster as the computer, fooled by blocked sensors, was allowed to trim the jet max nose up and then stall.

Some aircrew feel uneasy at the over-automated direction aviation has taken, but they are powerless to change the status quo, or else they don't wish to attract airline management anger on themselves by complaining.

Airlines need to turn the clock back and allow pilots to fully explore a jet's handling envelope.  They need to encourage pilots to manually fly a jet in all flight phases.  There is nothing unsafe about this.  It is what a pilot is trained for and is paid to do.

A pilot should not be satisfied until he feels confident that he is able to take manual control at all times.  He needs to use the automation freely but not be reliant on it.

Automation needs to return to its original purpose on a jet -- to aid the pilot and relieve him of workload in order to ensure safer flight.  Not to be the primary operator and decision-maker in the cockpit.  That is a dangerous wrong direction that needs to change.

The  report by France's aviation authority, the BEA, cites technical faults and subsequent pilot error as the cause of the deadly crash in June 2009.  As a 30-plus-year international Boeing pilot, I feel qualified to offer a few observations.

Commercial aviation has a history of progressing in a particular direction before tragedy proves that that direction is unsafe.  A good example is the airship, which seemed perfect for international passengers until a series of disasters proved them unsuitable for commercial travel.  Seaplanes also once seemed the direction to go, with water landings possible around the globe, but the unpredictability of the ocean put paid to that idea.  The crash of Air France has revealed that aviation is again moving in an unsafe direction.

We have progressed to modern jet aircraft whose computer flight control systems are so capable that they can be used in every phase of flight except takeoff.  Following airliner manufacturers' safety recommendations, most airlines now require mandatory use of the auto-flight systems whenever possible.  Pilots routinely go months without actually manually flying their machines.  They get to practice physical handling and laid out emergency procedures only in a simulator.

Until the recent past, commercial pilots used to love manually flying their machines and sharpening their handling skills.  The more they practiced, the more confident they became in their ability to handle the jet in all phases of flight.  But in the name of flight safety, commercial pilots have now been largely reduced to computer operators -- in old pilot talk, button-pushers and knob-twirlers.

But is it in fact safer?

The most alarming part of the crash report was that the Air France pilots failed to recognize the situation they were in despite numerous clues on their basic flight instrumentation.  They allowed themselves to become distracted by faulty computer messages and warnings.  Their attempts to save the jet were completely the opposite of what was needed.  In short, they forgot how to fly.

In the modern world of aviation, instead of computerized flight systems being an aid, pilots have become totally dependent on them.  A pilot's natural instinct is to immediately go back to basic flying skills when presented with contradictory information (such as happened on AF447).  This instinct has been replaced by doing nothing in the hope that the computer will sort itself out or at least tell the pilot what to do.  In fact, many pilots have so little hands on experience that they are only too happy leave the flying to the computer.  In AF447, it resulted in a disaster as the computer, fooled by blocked sensors, was allowed to trim the jet max nose up and then stall.

Some aircrew feel uneasy at the over-automated direction aviation has taken, but they are powerless to change the status quo, or else they don't wish to attract airline management anger on themselves by complaining.

Airlines need to turn the clock back and allow pilots to fully explore a jet's handling envelope.  They need to encourage pilots to manually fly a jet in all flight phases.  There is nothing unsafe about this.  It is what a pilot is trained for and is paid to do.

A pilot should not be satisfied until he feels confident that he is able to take manual control at all times.  He needs to use the automation freely but not be reliant on it.

Automation needs to return to its original purpose on a jet -- to aid the pilot and relieve him of workload in order to ensure safer flight.  Not to be the primary operator and decision-maker in the cockpit.  That is a dangerous wrong direction that needs to change.