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The major French air disaster in recent times: flight AF447

Air travel is by far the safest mode of transportation, but it has not always been this safe. Since the birth of air travel there have been several major aircraft accidents involving commercial flights. As flight travel expanded and the carrying capacity of flights increased, casualties from accidents did, too.  In this article, we are going to talk about the most famous plane crash in Air France’s history: Flight 447.

Three hours prior to departure, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 216 passengers and 12 crew members boarded Air France’s flight 447 for an overnight flight to Paris. The plane was an Airbus A330, a fully fly-by-wire wide body jet with an impeccable safety record. Since its introduction in 1994, this aircraft had never had a fatal accident as a commercial flight. The flight crew consisted of 58-year-old Captain Marc Dubois, a veteran pilot with nearly 11 000 hours, 32-year-old First Officer Pierre-Cédric Bonin, an inexperienced copilot with 2 000 hours who had recently come up through Air France’s in-house training program. As well as 37-year-old Relief First Officer David Robert, who would fill in during the middle of the flight so that Captain Dubois could get his legally mandated rest. Robert had also learned to fly at Air France, but had since graduated to an executive position, and had joined the crew of flight 447 in order to keep his type rating. His landing in Rio de Janeiro during the inbound trip was his first in three months.

Approximately three hours into its journey from Rio to Paris, Air France Flight 447, headed towards an area of severe thunderstorm activity.

From an envelope pushing altitude of 38 000 feet, the aircraft entered an aerodynamic stall before plunging into the depths of the southern Atlantic Ocean, killing all passengers on board. Several days later, pieces of the wreckage were spotted floating on the water surface.

Investigators had a hard time with the whole investigation. The problem was that the Air France flight 447 had apparently vanished within an area that not only had no radar coverage and no possibility of witnesses but also only spotty radio contact. No one knew exactly when or where the plane went down. And with each passing hour, any floating debris would drift farther from its point of origin. By the time the first search planes departed, more than ten hours had passed since the crash, and the debris was already scattering.

But thanks to the automated messages sent from the crippled plane as it went down, investigators have been able to suspect that the problem was with the pitot tubes. At the time of its disappearance, flight 447 was flying through storms in the intertropical convergence zone, the perfect conditions for Pitot tube icing.

This model of Pitot tube had on several occasions, been shown to experience the accumulation of ice at a greater rate than the heaters could remove, leading to a loss of airspeed data. In fact, Air France, Airbus, and the Pitot tube manufacturer had been holding meetings on the matter since 2008. Moreover, earlier in 2009 a study had shown that a newer model of Thales Pitot tube could significantly reduce the frequency of such incidents. Consequently, Air France quickly ordered the new pitot tubes for all its Airbus A330s, and the first airplane was retrofitted on May 30th, just hours before Air France flight 447 left Rio de Janeiro. Although the airline had been proactive, their efforts unfortunately came too late for the 228 passengers and crew members hence presumed lost at sea.

The whereabouts of the rest of the jet remained a mystery for more than 2 years, when a privately funded search located the bulk of the fuselage. The uncovering led experts to conclude that the crash was caused by the pilots' failure to take corrective action to recover from the stall.

The findings cast a harsh light on fly-by-wire technology and its reliance on computers, rather than humans, to make the final call on flight decisions. Boeing and Airbus both use fly-by-wire, but Boeing gives pilots the ability to override automation. The crash prompted a renewed effort to retrain pilots to manually fly the plane no matter what the information they were given by the computer.

@La Depeche

@Le Républicain Lorrain

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