06.05.09

Who Was Flying Flight 447?

During its final minutes, while the jet was flying through a horrendous storm, the crew was content with the autopilot in control. The Daily Beast’s aviation expert Clive Irving reports on the fatal error.

As I reported in The Daily Beast on Wednesday, data describing a cascade of technical failures on Air France Flight 447 came from a computer, not the pilots. Now one piece of that data is raising questions about the pilots. Ten minutes after the last message received from the crew—that they were flying through black, electrically charged clouds with violent winds—the computer, known as Aircraft Condition Monitoring System, or ACMS, signaled that the autopilot had been disengaged.

This is stunning. It indicates that for those 10 minutes, while the Airbus A330 was flying through some of the most challenging weather in the world, the crew was hands-off, content to let the autopilot remain in control. Under normal conditions in highly automated cockpits like this, the autopilot, already programmed with the optimum flight path (direction, height, speed), has digital reflexes faster than human responses and trims the airplane in micro-second bites.

But these were anything but normal conditions. They called for human intervention and old-fashioned “seat of the pants” flying where the pilot and machine bond in a visceral way—just as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger did when he made his Miracle on the Hudson landing. And Sullenberger was flying an Airbus—the smaller A320, but with identical “fly-by-wire” controls to those of the A330. And he had no engine power, it was a spectacular example of fly-by-wire-and-seat-of-pants.

In a horrendous storm—of a kind that is familiar on the route between Brazil and the West African coast—the pilot can see and hear things the autopilot cannot. Seeing, hearing, and feeling are basically what piloting is all about.

On February 25, a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 crashed in Amsterdam—killing nine people including the pilots—when the pilots failed to hear that their engines had gone to idle because the autopilot assumed, through instrument error, that it was on ground approach when, in fact, it was still at 2,000 feet. They weren’t looking and they weren’t listening.

That’s what piloting is all about: situational awareness. Navigating through high turbulence and electric storms needs total alertness. So the handling of Flight 447 again raises the question of whether pilots have become over-reliant on autopilots. Another detail from the ACMS data sent from the A330, that the airplane may have been flying too slowly, is hard to explain. Sensors that rely on the outer slipstream to gauge speed might well have been misguided by the storm’s winds, including updrafts as high as 100 miles per hour. If so, that is just one more reason why you need pilots who represent the last resort of airmanship, the instincts to feel when something is badly wrong. The human factor is irreplaceable.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation.