Cockpit crisis

In five years, over 50 commercial airplanes crashed in loss-of-control accidents. What’s going on?

Cockpit crisis

Hans van den Boogaard/Hollandse Hoogte

With low clouds and a fine mist hanging in the morning air, the pilots of Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 anticipated a routine approach to Amsterdam’s busy Schiphol Airport on Feb. 25, 2009. But instead of touching down gently on the runway, the white and red Boeing 737 dropped out of the sky and slammed into a muddy field just short of the airport, smashing into three pieces. Nine people died, including all three pilots. Another 84 were injured.

Investigators attributed the crash to a faulty radio altimeter, aggravated by pilot errors and oversights. Radio altimeters use radio waves to measure a plane’s altitude—a key piece of equipment, which is why a 737 is equipped with two of them. But what nobody in the cockpit of Flight 1951 realized was that the malfunctioning altimeter happened to control the 737’s auto-thrust systems. So while the co-pilot was busy monitoring the autopilot (which used data from a different altimeter), and Capt. Hasan Tahsin Arisan was watching the co-pilot as part of a training exercise, and a third “safety” officer was supposed to be watching everyone to make sure nothing got missed, the auto-thrust erroneously engaged its “retard” mode, thinking it was just above the runway. The throttles were cut and the plane’s nose pitched up, causing the plane to drift into an aerodynamic stall. The flight crew tried to recover by returning the throttles to full power, but their initial efforts were thwarted by the confused auto-thrust system, which they forgot to disengage. There was no time for a second try.

Statistically speaking, modern avionics have made flying safer than ever. But the crash of Flight 1951 is just one of several recent, high-profile reminders that minor problems can quickly snowball into horrific disasters when pilots don’t understand the increasingly complex systems in the cockpit, or don’t use them properly. The point was hammered home later that year when Air France Flight 447 stalled at nearly 38,000 feet and ended up crashing into the Atlantic, killing all 228 on board. Investigators recently released transcripts from the Airbus A330’s cockpit voice recorder. It reveals a flight crew gripped by confusion as they tried to diagnose and respond to what should have been a manageable mid-air emergency, but instead resulted in a terrifying 3½-minute plunge in total darkness. “I don’t have control of the airplane anymore,” the co-pilot at the controls said at one point. “Now I don’t have control of the airplane at all.”

Despite being responsible for the lion’s share of passenger deaths over the past decade, it’s only recently that the industry has begun to treat so-called “loss-of-control” accidents as a serious issue. Sunjoo Advani, an expert in flight simulation and the president of a Netherlands-based simulation and engineering consulting firm, says he received puzzled looks when, back in 2007, he suggested that Britain’s Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS), an influential safety group, hold a conference on the issue. Not anymore. Advani has spent the past two years coordinating the International Committee for Aviation Training in Extended Envelopes, or ICATEE, a panel of experts asked by the RAeS to look into stalls and other loss-of-control accidents and find ways to prevent them. “Many of these accidents are recoverable,” he says. “They simply shouldn’t have happened. In many incidents, the airplane has gone into a stall and every automated safety procedure kicked in, but the pilots failed to recognize the situation and failed to recover.”

Why is it happening? Some argue that the sheer complexity of modern flight systems, though designed to improve safety and reliability, can overwhelm even the most experienced pilots when something actually goes wrong. Others say an increasing reliance on automated flight may be dulling pilots’ sense of flying a plane, leaving them ill-equipped to take over in an emergency. Still others question whether pilot-training programs have lagged behind the industry’s rapid technological advances.

It’s a vexing problem for airlines, and a worrisome one for their customers. Unlike mechanical failures that can be traced to flawed design or poor maintenance, there is no easy fix when experienced and highly trained pilots make seemingly inexplicable decisions that end with a US$250-million airplane literally falling out of the sky. “The best you can do is teach pilots to understand automation and not to fight it,” Advani says, noting that the focus in recent years has, perhaps myopically, been on simplifying and speeding up training regimes, secure in the knowledge that planes have never been smarter or safer. “We’ve worked ourselves into a little bit of a corner here. Now we have to work ourselves back out.”

In the past five years alone, there have been more than 50 stalls and other loss-of-control accidents involving commercial airlines, nearly all of them fatal, according to the International Air Transport Association. Unlike a car or truck, a plane stalls when its wings stop producing lift—effectively transforming it from an elegant flying machine into a giant brick. That happens when the angle of attack (the angle of the wing relative to the direction the plane is flying) becomes too extreme. In most cases, stalls occur because a pilot is flying too slowly to maintain altitude, although they can theoretically occur at any speed. To recover, pilots are taught to apply thrust and to lower the nose of the aircraft. A 2010 study by Boeing found that 20 different loss-of-control accidents were responsible for nearly 1,850 deaths between 2000 and 2009, nearly double the number of fatalities of the next biggest category, “controlled flight into terrain,” which is basically the flying of a plane into the side of a mountain. That makes loss of control, including stalls, both the single most common cause of fatal airline crashes, and by far the most deadly.

But stalls needn’t be fatal events. Pilots are taught how to recover from them in basic flight school, and many modern planes are equipped with systems designed to prevent them from occurring in the first place. In modern Airbus-built planes, for example, an electronic fly-by-wire control system means a pilot who hauls back on the side-stick controller, a joystick-like device that has replaced a traditional control yoke in Airbus cockpits, will not be permitted by the computer to put the plane and its passengers in a dangerous situation.

And yet loss-of-control crashes continue to bedevil the industry. And several recent accident investigations reveal a disturbing trend: highly trained pilots who, when faced with a stall, not only fail to correctly diagnose the problem, but take actions that make their predicaments far worse.

That’s what happened on Feb. 12, 2009, aboard Colgan Air Flight 3407. Tired and distracted, Capt. Marvin Renslow and first officer Rebecca Shaw failed to notice that the airspeed of their Bombardier-built Q400 turboprop had slowed significantly as they approached Buffalo’s airport. Suddenly, the Q400’s “stick-shaker” warning system went off, alerting the pilots of an impending stall. But instead of increasing the throttle power and pointing the nose downward, Renslow pulled back on the yoke, turning a near-stall into the real thing. He similarly out-muscled the plane’s “stick-pusher” feature, which is designed to force the plane’s nose downward in a last-ditch effort to recover. The plane spiralled out of control. Investigators cited training deficiencies at the airline and crew fatigue as contributing causes to the crash, which killed 49 people on board and one person on the ground.

Similarly, the investigation of Air France Flight 447 has veered away from the failure of the plane’s airspeed sensors, or pitot tubes, to focus on pilot error, although a final report on the crash is still forthcoming. The recovery of the plane’s black-box recorders from the ocean floor in May revealed that the Airbus A330’s problems began when it lost airspeed readings after flying into thunderstorms during a June 1, 2009, overnight flight to Paris from Rio de Janeiro. But it was the pilots’ response to the wonky airspeed readings that sealed the fate of the 216 passengers in the plane’s cabin. Once the autopilot clicked off, the flight-data recorder showed that the co-pilot (the plane’s captain, Marc Dubois, was taking a scheduled rest break during the first few minutes of the crisis, but returned to the cockpit before the plane went down) set the throttle to takeoff thrust and sent the plane up to nearly 38,000 feet, where it stalled. The interim report released last month said none of the pilots made any reference to the repeated stall warnings, one of which was “triggered continuously for 54 seconds.” Instead, the flight crew seemed utterly perplexed at their predicament. The co-pilot sitting in the captain’s chair at one point says, “Climb, climb, climb, climb,” to which the other co-pilot responds: “But I’ve been at maxi nose-up for a while.” Then the captain (who is now in the cockpit, but not at the controls) says, “No, no, no, don’t climb.” Nevertheless, as the A330 continued its long, gut-churning fall into the Atlantic, the co-pilot at the controls continued to make inputs that were “mainly nose-up,” according to investigators—precisely the opposite of what needed to be done to counteract the stall, which was to lower the nose and restore lift to the wings.

As the operation of commercial jetliners becomes increasingly automated—most are equipped with systems that are perfectly capable of flying and landing the plane on their own, although pilots have the authority to hand-fly the plane when they deem it necessary—some experts are concerned it’s only becoming more difficult for pilots to jump in and take over during a mid-air emergency, when their skills and experience are needed most. “The problem you get into with automated systems is that very often people get left out of the loop,” says Mica Endsley, the president of Atlanta-based SA Technologies and an expert in the field of situational awareness who has worked closely with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigating air crashes. She compares the phenomenon to a person who catches a ride to a dinner party in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, but is later asked to drive home and has difficulty remembering the route. “We’ve found that, even when people are monitoring things very carefully, you just don’t have a good understanding of what’s happening. When you realize there’s a problem, you don’t necessarily know how you got into that state and what to do to correct it.”

There’s also the risk of information overload, as the pilots of a Qantas Airways-owned Airbus A380 “superjumbo” discovered last November. Shortly after takeoff from Singapore, one of the hulking A380’s four engines exploded and sent pieces of the engine cowling raining down on an Indonesian island. The blast also damaged several of the A380’s key systems, causing the unsuspecting flight crew to be bombarded with no less than 54 different warnings and error messages—so many that co-pilot Matt Hicks later said that, at one point, he held his thumb over a button that muted the cascade of audible alarms, which threatened to distract Capt. Richard De Crespigny and the rest of the feverishly working flight crew. Luckily for passengers, Qantas Flight 32 had an extra two pilots in the cockpit as part of a training exercise, all of whom pitched in to complete the nearly 60 checklists required to troubleshoot the various systems. The wounded plane limped back to Singapore Changi Airport, where it made an emergency landing.

It’s not as though manufacturers aren’t aware of the issue. But the reflex is to fix the problem by throwing more technology and automated systems at it. Cockpit component company Rockwell Collins, for example, made waves at this year’s Paris air show when it talked about developing a “panic button” for commercial airplanes that would give confused and stricken pilots the option of flipping a switch and letting the computer fly the plane to safety. Not surprisingly, the concept drew ridicule from aviators, who are quick to point out that computers are hardly infallible, as anyone who has ever struggled with a crashed Web browser knows. “People say it’s impossible to stall an Airbus, right? It has stall-protection systems and it won’t allow you to exceed the maximum angle of attack where a stall would occur,” argues Paul Strachan, an Air Canada pilot who is the head of the company’s pilots’ union. “But that’s not true. If there’s ice on the wing, that whole detection system isn’t accurate to begin with. I would be pretty hesitant to get on a plane with no pilot.”

Endsley takes a more nuanced position. She argues the problem isn’t necessarily with automation, but stresses the need for better-designed systems that allow pilots to see what the computers are doing at any given moment. “Instead of throwing 8,000 pieces of data at pilots, you need to integrate that information in meaningful ways so they can tell what’s going on,” she says. In the case of Flight 447, Air France’s pilots’ union has pointed a finger at Airbus by suggesting that the stall warning system on the A330 likely contributed to the doomed flight crew’s confusion by sounding only intermittently even though the plane remained in a stall the whole time.

But overhauling flight management systems is easier said than done. All-new planes are rare in the industry, and even when they do get made, as with Boeing’s new 787 and Airbus’s A380, there is significant pressure on manufacturers to make sure new models will integrate with airlines’ existing fleets, and the pilot-training programs created for them. Robert Dewar, the general manager of Bombardier’s new CSeries regional jet program, says the Montreal-based aerospace giant wrestled with the question when it was considering the cockpit design for its new 110- to 130-seat plane. Influenced by the company’s experience in building business jets with the latest bells and whistles, Dewar says Bombardier ultimately decided to work with Rockwell Collins to develop a new approach to flight management for the CSeries. “Pilot-in-the-loop and pilot awareness is a thing we can work on to improve safety,” he says. “We took advantage of new technology to make information available to the pilot in a user-friendly manner. And we put it in using a phase-by-phase approach, which hasn’t been done before.” In other words, while most flight management systems organize information based on overall importance to the aircraft, the CSeries will instead have tabbed screens that display everything a pilot needs to monitor a particular stage of a flight—taxiing, takeoff, cruise and so on. There will be no need for digging through sub-menus to find buried, but potentially important, data. In the Air France crash, for example, investigators noted that the plane’s critical angle of attack “was not directly displayed to the pilots” and recommended changes. “There are no multi-screens,” Dewar says of the CSeries. “You’re monitoring one screen. You don’t have to look anywhere else.”

It’s doubtful that technology alone will prove to be a panacea when it comes to airline safety. That’s why Advani and the rest of the ICATEE panel—which includes representatives from Boeing, NASA, Transport Canada, Montreal-based flight simulator maker CAE and the 53,000-member Air Line Pilots Association—are recommending changes to pilot training regimes, with a particular focus on recovering from aerodynamic stalls. Similarly, France’s safety body is also recommending that pilots be required to regularly practise manual airplane handling and “approach to and recovery from stall, including at high altitude” and noted that Air France Flight 447’s co-pilots had received “no high-altitude training for unreliable IAS (indicated air speed) procedure and manual aircraft handling.”

At present, most pilots only learn how to deal with stalls in an actual airplane at the very beginning of their careers, according to Advani. The drill is usually done in a small aircraft like a Cessna and, even then, generally focuses on avoiding a stall, or recovering from its early stages, by powering up the engines and attempting to minimize a loss of altitude, which may explain the actions of Air France’s flight crew. “You learn it during the initial pilot’s licence,” Advani says. “Then you go on to becoming a commercial pilot, getting your multi-engine and instrument ratings. You’re concentrating on moving up and managing bigger airplanes with multi-crew type operations. So as your career progresses, you don’t go back to the basic stuff—the aero­dynamic flying of the plane.”

In Canada, training for a private pilot’s licence includes “stall and spiral-dive recoveries, and recovery from an irregular condition of flight solely by reference to a full panel of available instruments,” according to Transport Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette. Before getting a commercial licence, pilots are required to demonstrate “competency” in these skills, with Durette noting that Canada is one of the few jurisdictions that still requires spin-recovery techniques (think of a plane diving in a corkscrew pattern).

Later in a pilot’s career, any further stall or flight-upset recovery training is done in a flight simulator, a full-scale mock-up of an airplane cockpit encased in a fibreglass pod that sits atop spindly hydraulic legs. Inside, pilots look out windows just as they would in a real plane, but instead see a computer-generated image of their surroundings. Simulators can replicate very closely the feel and handling of a particular aircraft under most conditions, allowing instructors to put pilots through various drills like crosswind landings, instrument failures and other potential emergencies.

But Advani, who is an expert in the field of flight simulation, says simulators aren’t very good at mimicking full-blown aero­dynamic stalls, which are chaotic and unpredictable events, making them difficult to model. Nor do simulators create the fear and panic that comes from knowing your actions may lead to the death of hundreds of people. As a result, he says, there needs to be more classroom focus on the basics of aerodynamic flight in addition to simulator training, which varies from airline to airline. “We don’t need to train the pilot on exactly how it feels in the simulator,” he says, adding that there needs to be more emphasis on not just avoiding stalls, but recovering from them once they occur. “You need to teach them to get the heck out of that stall. And lowering the nose is the number one rule. Don’t worry about that wing drop, don’t fight that. Just make sure you lower the nose and get the heck out of that dangerous situation.”

In light of accidents like Air France 447, Boeing and Airbus recently overhauled their stall-recovery training in simulators, with the support of airlines and regulators. They now emphasize the importance of reducing the upward angle of the nose, which has the tendency to pitch up when power is added to aircraft with engines located under the wings.

ICATEE, which has yet to issue an official report on its findings, is also recommending regulators go a step farther and require pilots spend time earlier in their careers in aerobatic airplanes, where they can practise honing their skills closer to the edge of the flight envelope—skills that commercial pilots now glean only if they’ve served in the military. “We used to regularly recover from total upsets,” says Air Canada’s Strachan, an ex-military pilot. That included situations where his plane stalled out while nearly vertical or inverted, all while wearing a hood that blocked his view of the horizon. “You couldn’t look outside and had to recover off your instruments. That’s an element of training that isn’t there as much as it should be today.”

Charting an entirely new direction for pilot training isn’t going to be easy. Thanks to a global pilot shortage stemming from the rapid growth of airlines in Asia and the Middle East, the industry has been more focused on finding ways to get pilots into commercial airline cockpits with less real-world training, not more. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations, predicts airlines will add 25,000 new airplanes to their fleets over the next two decades. And all those new planes will need pilots—about 350,000 of them by 2026. That’s among the reasons that, five years ago, ICAO approved the creation of a “multi-crew pilot licence” for commercial airlines. It allows would-be pilots to step into the co-pilot seat of a commercial airliner with as little as 240 hours of flying time, much of which can be done in a simulator. (In contrast, Strachan says most Air Canada pilots typically have nearly a decade of flying experience before they are hired.) The theory is that the job of a modern commercial airline pilot bears little resemblance to what it was 15 or 20 years ago, and that logging thousands of hours as a bush pilot or crop-duster is no longer as critical.

Strachan concedes that today’s commercial pilots need a variety of skill sets. And as head of Air Canada’s pilots’ union, he knows the cost realities of the business as well as anyone. But he remains convinced that there is no substitute for actual experience in an airplane. “It almost never happens in real life like it happens in a simulator,” he says. “It’s almost never textbook in my experience. You practise it one way and when something finally does happen, it’s always way more nebulous and insidious.” He recalls a takeoff early in his career from the Thule airstrip in northwestern Greenland, where he suddenly caught himself in katabatic winds that had tumbled off the side of a glacier. The plane was forced violently downward toward the waves and Strachan barely managed to power his way out of a near disaster.

“There’s something that you just can’t simulate,” he says, adding that his heart still jumps just thinking about it. “It’s gained through experience. Everybody on the crew learned something that day. It becomes part of your hard drive. So the next time you’re faced with that situation, and you’re in a place where there’s wind coming off a cliff and you’re taking off, you think, ‘Hmm, I’ve seen something like this before. Let’s be careful.’ ”


Cockpit crisis

  1. Isn’t it about time we stop and think upon this over-reliance on automated systems? And we are doing this with cars now. Not to mention the use of cellphones while performing these critical activities. Where is the “research” on the behavioural and psychological aspects of instrumentation “over-load”? There has always been a dis-connect between the engineering and human-life sciences. We are at a cross-roads. Pray we survive. Like going under an overpass in Montreal

  2. In my 25 year career as a charter pilot and airline pilot I have witnessed a serious degradation of basic flying skills from the beginning of the pilot training.  This is done to make the training more affordable for the pilot students.  This is not made up later in their professional career as the companies that hire them also want to save money.  At the same time the aircraft manufacturers are putting so much automation in the planes that pilots are expected to put the autopilot on as soon  as allowed after takeoff  and keep it on until just before landing.  That means that the new airline pilots who barely know what they are doing in a simple plane, are put into a highly sophisticated automated jetliner to act as a system operator.  
    So my comment is this; why should we then wonder why the pilots are having trouble with basic problems like stalls.

    • And I would like to add this observation: notice how a large part of these problems occurred when “de-regulation” was introduced by the Mulroney government – copying what occurred in the USA. So, the rational was that de-regulation would open up the industry to be “more safe” and competitive and everyone would benefit. We now know who did benefit. Shareholders of the companies who could then begin to skirt government regulation and make more $ at the cost of “safety” rules. Well, we know what has happened when this occurred with allowing Wall St. bankers to pursue the “market” completely unfettered. Unfortunately a lot of common men & women have paid a BIG price for this freedom. I rest my case 

      • Both good comments, except for the niggling issue that the pilot who doesn’t realize he or she has skin in this game has no business requesting clearance for take-off.  If the pilot can’t be arsed to be damned sure he or she knows what to do, please don’t go harping at Wall Street.

        • Tell that to your 16 year old who wants to drive daddy’s car. I don’t think GM, Ford, Chrysler, Mazda .. care in the least

          • And 16-year-olds don’t fly me and my family to Calgary, either.  Because Westjet and Air Canada do care.  And if other industries cared about client/employee safety and zero-failure-tolerance as much as commercial aviation cares, we’d be much better off.

      • I fail to see what exactly Mulrooney and de-regulation have to do with this. How many of the 50 accidents in question happened in Canada? My guess is none.

        • it’s about “accountability and transparency”. deregulation by free-market advocates only has short term benefits at the expense of safety; because safety is a “cost” which usually is the last item when the competition starts to impinge on P/L. sic. Wall St. derivatives. Mr. Mulroney was a puppet of GOP and NAFTA. I don’t buy the “too big government” cr*p because “smoke & mirrors” is a profiteers dream, and reality. The more chaos in the market the better opportunity to make more. At this stage in the world economy “more” is causing a lot of problems for everyone.

      • I never knew that one of the claims of deregulation in the US was that the industry would end up being more safe. Perhaps that was an argument used in Canada. The main focus of deregulation in the US was to provide more competition by allowing unrestricted entry into the carrier marketplace by new airlines that would save the consumer money by lowering ticket prices. This was also supposed to force the legacy airlines to become more efficient having to compete with the new entrants rather than having a protected route structure.

        The end result was that the consumers did save on ticket prices. However, the cost was the destruction of a healthy air transport industry in the US and the loss of thousands of good paying jobs at the airlines and the companies that provided support (catering, supplies, maintenance). Now we have replaced the Greyhound bus with the Airbus and the amenites of air travel have fallen by the wayside.

    • See my Comment about 16.03 25 Aug

    • I agree whit you.

  3. Geez.  This non-pilot learned from the Discovery Channel years ago that you point the nose down to speed up out of a stall.  Don’t give me the it’s-all-too-sophisticated-now crap.  This is pretty basic aviation stuff.  If commercial pilots get stumped over stall prevention and recovery, and have a habit of opting for the exact opposite maneuver to what is required, what the H are we paying these turkeys so much to sit in front of the autopilot for?  It’s pretty scary that aircraft manufacturers have reached the design phase that the computer algorithms must account for pilot stupidity.

    I will remember with fondness the “Gimli glider” pilot whose out-of-fuel jet needed him to apply some glider move (side slip, I think?) to successfully make the runway on his one and only chance.  That breed seems to be going extinct.

    Don’t blame the machines if the humans are screwing up more and more.

    • I think that this is the point that M is trying to make. It is not the machines but “apprenticeship” and lack thereof because of the all mighty $. A screw-up created by humans who seem to have forgot the initial reason planes are manufactured for; to get people from point A to B without killing them in the process. Since, like Wall St. human loss of life is marginalized to collateral damage over profit – the mathematics does this exceptionally well, then pilot training takes a back seat. As far as your Gimili glider analogy, let’s us remember the Air France Concorde crash. The pilots didn’t screw-up but as this article points out, sh*t happens. When someone calls themselves an “expert” I also run for the nearest exit 

    • 1. Pilots do not make near as much as you think, (read bus drivers make more than the new first officer) Some pilots for smaller airlines make just above minimum wage. In my first flying job I made less than minimum wage.

      2. Every pilot knows that to recover from a stall you must reduce the angle of attack (lower the nose, etc…) Knowing that the aircraft IS stalled however, can be tricky when you are in cloud or flying at night in a dark area. Especially after you have had auto pilot on for the last 4 hours and you dont know exactly how the aircraft got into that situation, as the article states. Stall warning devices can be finicky and may not even go off in a stall.

      • To get out of a deep stall is not so easy. Apparently the A330 was in a deep stall and recovery may introduce manoeuvers quite different from standard. I have heard from french sources that attempt to recover an A330 from a deep stall was not so easy. They have tried various solutions one of them was utilisation of assymetric thrust as well as a pitch up for attempting to roll and get the nose down in the roll.
        In any case the lost altitude was impressive. 
        until now, the procedure for getting out the A330 from a deep stall is not yet clearly established.

  4. Regarding the Air France crash – Stall recovery in an Airbus that has lost AOA (angle of attack) protection due to being in alternate law as a result of the unreliable airspeed problem isn’t as simple as some imply here.
    Pushing fully forward on the sidestick does not give enough pitch authority to lower the nose if the Stab trim is fully aft as it would be due to the autotrim attempting to trim the aircraft as the speed slowed approaching the stall.
    Once in the full stall, even applying full sidestick forward, the stab stays trimmed full nose up and cannot be manually trimmed nose down without overriding several computers.
    The crew would have to think completely outside the box and have the presence of mind to intentionally force the aircraft into “direct law”, a mode in which the pilot can manually fly the aircraft without any computer intervention.  Only after switching off these flight computers would the crew be able to manually trim the stab forward enough to lower the nose and recover from the stall.
    Please keep in mind that recognising that they were actually in a full stall, the failed initial attempt to recover, figuring out what to do in order to regain control, and executing it successfully would all have to take place in less than approx. 5 minutes of free fall before they hit the ocean.
    Its tragic that this crew ran out of time due to the rate at which they were falling, however there are several lessons to be learnt from this:
    1. Maintain situational awareness – Aircraft should have never got to the point of a stall regardless of airspeed indications
    2. Knowing how to and when to turn off all automation if a situation becomes so abnormal that crew confusion ensues – revert to basic flying skills 

    • Not true about the stab trim – you can override it with your hands! One of the few manual controls on all Airbus Aircraft is the Pitch trim wheel by your knee cap. The AF447 guys did not lower the nose until the last few secs.

      • Actually, in alternate law with the speed too low, you cannot move the stab trim if it is in a stab lock condition. They would first have to get the stab out of this locked condition by forcing direct law, which requires manually turning off several flight control computers.

    • Ignoring some uninformed comments that follow, Airbus aircraft will climb abruptly after going into alternate law when airspeed fluctuates.  I have read that taking manual control and applying forward stick will normally stop the climb.  In this case, I assume that the PF’s application of aft stick caused the autotrim to apply nose up trim.  Would that be correct?


      • Not necessarily, the loss of reliable airspeed forces the the system into alternate law which still allows the plane to fly under normal control but you lose angle of attack protection. under normal law, the stab will only autotrim within the green band, with a loss of angle of attack protection, it will auto trim full nose up. Ill have to double check if this will happen while still coupled to the auto pilot, or if it was caused by further aft stick movement after autopilot disengagement.

    • From French Pilot sources, the 330 was in deep stall and procedures for recovering from the deep stall were not established and seem quite difficult to implement. More nobody knows what the pilots have gotten displayed in front of them.

  5. This is engineering error. This incident started almost assuredly with ice on the pitot tube. The pilots can be blamed for their reactions to the iced pitot but the cause of this accident was engineering. A reliable pitot tube with heating that worked should have been installed on this aircraft.
    This is even more blatant than the crash of a DC8 many years ago at Malton being called pilot error. The co-pilot on approach pulled on the spoiler handle. A handle that was obvious as hell and did not have a safety catch or any device requiring two actions before deployment.
    I would be amazed if reliable heated pitot tubes were not available.

  6. Horse crap!  The purpose of this article is to create fear and question the reputation of people that uphold the highest level of responsibility and perform at an unmached level of professionalism.  There is a key difference in the trust that you put in a pilot and any other professional; they are going with you and they put their life on the line when you step into their plane.   Not one doctor, or lawyer will put their life on the line for you, a pilot wouldnt think twice.

    The cockpit of these planes is automated and we are trained for all the expected emergencies.  We train in a simulator twice a year, and if we dont perform to acceptable standards and fail a test, we have out licence taken away, not suspended, not under review, nobody slaps our wrist, its taken away.  A doctor can maintain currency by attending a golf tournament in vegas, we have to do it on fire in the dark, screaming through the sky at 300 kts.  We have the responsibility to not show up for work when we are tired or sick, and always show up stone cold sober.  Ask your lawyer what his blood alcohol level was 12 hours before your case, or if your doctor has worked for over 12 hours.

    Doctors kill sick people one at a time, when they are tired and over worked, pilots kill healthy people hundreds at a time.  Yet we just seem to accept it from a doctor. 

    What we hear in the news is the story from an accident report generated from transport canada or NTSB.  They will ask if the pilot COULD have saved the aircraft, after they have spent months analyzing the data of a crash, we have fractions of a second to assess, try to figure out what information is correct and come up with a plan of action.  Their result is almost always pilot error, even in the case of the air france when they had 6 different system alarms going off, an auto pilot that was fighting them and put the plane in an unflyable condition, and conflicting information.  All this in the dark, in a thunderstorm in the middle of the night.  There is not one person who has read this article that could have saved that plane, including Chris Sorrensen the writer of this article.

    The people in the front of those planes are good poeple and their families deserve more respect than you have given them.

    • sounds more like maintenance error, or company policy error than pilot error to me. How is a pilot to know if the auto pilot is malfunctioning at 20,000 feet if it is still working? Its not like he can just drop a  tape measure to the ground and check.

    • “. . . There is not one person who has read this article that could have saved that plane . . .”

      Very true.

    • “Doctors kill sick people one at a time, when they are tired and over
      worked, pilots kill healthy people hundreds at a time.  Yet we just seem
      to accept it from a doctor. ”

      Just because some doctors fail, does not entitle some pilots to fail too.

  7. We’re lucky here in Canada that we rely so much on aviation.  This provides a very fertile training ground for future airline pilots.  My son just joined a canadian charter airline with over 3000 hours on his licence,1500 of which is captain on high performance turbine aircraft including the Dash 8.  Even at that he was at lower end of experience in his class.  Even after extensive training he felt the aircraft arrived at destination before he did.  As for airspeed indicator malfuntion I even know it for his aircraft 85% power and 4 degrees nose up.  It seems not everyone teaches this stuff, relying too much on automation.  The real trick being when do I turn off the fancy stuff and revert to flying.

  8. My Inhouse Version of my flight sim crashes.  It’s because my simplified wallpaper is doing it.  I simplified my wallpaper in a very patient effort to isolate a horrible bug which resets for no reason.  If it doesn’t go away, I’ve isolated hugely.  If it does go away, I’m stumped.  The wallpaper is known acceptibly buggy — I don’t care about the crashes if it’s the wallpaper.

  9. In all fairness, everybody is entitled to an opinion and should be able to share it.  However, before judgement is passed, it would behoove anyone to familiarize one’s self with the practises of the day, meaning manufacturers approved operating procedures, liablities, financial constraints, political constraints and plain old hard ego constraints.

    First, manufacturers deal with liabilities, hence their strict requirement for adherance to their recommended modus operandi.  Often these procedures are incomplete, excessively restrictive or just plain wrong.  Checklists are often written in “engineer thinking mode” and difficult if not impractical to apply in day to day operations.  Combine this with various operator’s interpretations of those manuals and checklists and it becomes clear very quickly that Standard Operating Procedures developed for these aircraft can incorporate huge errors that can cost lives.  Combine this with the fact that pilot managers in most airlines , who actually develop these SOPs are probably the least qualified to do just that.  An example of this would be to keep full aft stick in an airbus with full thrust and let the aircraft power itself out of the stall while depending on the flight computers to control the angle of attack.  Even at altitude.

    So then training.  I give the speakers this.  The new generation of pilots does have a disadvantage.  Their raw flying skills and the ability to hone those have suffered.  Not just because they start out flying complex aircraft at a much earlier point in their careers, but because it is so much more difficult to find instructors to teach them the right stuff.  I am not talking about those who flew “in the bush” for many years before coming to a major airline, or the ones who got out of the military, either fighters, heavy transport or even helicopters.  These “guys” are all skilled hands-on guys.  I am talking about the Seneca College grads.  The Aviation School generation of Airline Pilots who have the very basic training requirements to allow them to flash their pilot license in a bar full of “Oh wows”

    And I don’t blame them.  They do need more specific flying skills training, especially when it comes to flying large aircraft with extensive automation.  Blame those very airline executives for not allowing that to happen due to bottom lines.  Or blame the union officials for not forcing their companies to provide that training.  Or blame the egos of pilots who think they are better than that for not wanting to do more training.  Or how about this, adopting excessively restrictive SOPs, preventing pilots from making even the most common sense decision or exercising their pilot skills.  Or worse, have aviation authorities, who notoriously have the least flying skills of them all, determine your do’s and dont’s.  Yes folks, people in offices who fly once a month or less, or sometimes don’t fly at all.  How’s that for a comfort factor.

    So are they all bad?  Managers, officials, manufacturers?  No.  The bottom line is this.  The approach in civil aviation has always been “one guy poops his pants, everybody wears diapers”.  Instead of taking the lessons learned from mistakes made, the industry has a tendency to patch it with “we won’t do that anymore” and throw some technology at it to prevent or restrict it from happening.  What we don’t do is teach those who need it how to prevent and correct it in case it does happen. Technology is supposed to help pilots do their jobs better and more efficiently, not restrict their ability to do what they do best. 

    I differ of opinion with those who say they have seen a serious degradation of flying skills.  I would not call it that.  I prefer to call it a widening lack of specific skillsets due to a lack of basic training experience.  I heard the ole’ relic on CNN talk about how he had his “thing” to keep himself sharp on manual flying skills.  Honestly?  On the airbus, manual flying implies moving the stick around so that you either keep FPV on the donut (the bird) or the steering bars centered.  Hardly noteworthy when you have to fly out of a stall, windshear, go around or lose an engine at 120 knots in max crosswind.  Which by the way is something we do train for.

    So can you trust your pilots will know what to do?  Will you trust your next cab driver? The next chef in your next restaurant of choice?  How about your doctor, who never does recurrent training.  Or worse, your financial advisor, who doesn’t even have accountability.  Let me put it this way.  Pilots are the most regulated, most trained, most monitored and most professional individuals that walk the face of this planet.  There is no excuse for errors that kill people, but they are unavoidable considering the number of flights that are completed each hour of each day of each week.  Pilots have an enormous self interest in their skills.  We all want go home to spend those “huge” saleries we earn with the people with love and live with.  The very same people that might one day sit in an airplane next to you.

    Let’s rally behind these individuals to give them what they need.  Let’s point fingers at the manufacturers, the authorities and incompetent management. 

  10. Thank you, Chris Sorensen, for your excellent and timely article. Thanks as well to your respondents, particularly cdnpilot and Justice. May I recommend to your readers David Learmount’s blog at Flight Global, where he has called for a dialogue in response to the heart-rending accident report from AF 447.

    The loss-of-control epidemic simply must be addressed. The issues are too important to
    ignore; indeed the future of commercial aviation may depend on our dialogue.

    Davis Learmount offered to share the blame for this and other loss-of-control accidents. I applaud his involvement and his initiative to share rather than shift blame. I wrote a comment to that blog where I said, in part:

    All of us share the blame, all the way down to the passenger who wants a cheaper flight. But in the end, blame is irrelevant. Blame only serves economic interests which demand simple answers. These answers will not be simple.

    Let us all be brave and try to speak truth as we see it. Let us all bring
    our training and experience to bear on the recovered data (fromAF447) and mine it for lessons and solutions.

    Cdnpilot’s explanation of Auto-trim in Alternate Law is very much to the point. I know of two fatal accidents where the Trimmable Horizontal Stabilizer was run to full nose-up without the pilots being aware of it while in Alternate Law. Justice educates us on the pressures and trends leading us into the impasse where we now find ourselves. And macGen is not wrong when he points at deregulation as one of the forces at work here.

    I am a retired pilot who spent most of a decade as Captain and Training Captain on the Airbus A320 family. I very much respect and admire the aircraft and its brilliant designer, Bernard Ziegler. But none of us is perfect. Not me, not Ziegler, and not my old sweetheart, the A320. Certainly not airlines, regulators, and markets.

    But all of us have skin in the game.

    I recommend this re-enactment of US Airways Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson, sent to me
    recently by a fellow-pilot. Notice how less than seven seconds after recognizing that both engines are “rolling back” Captain Sullenberger says, “I’m starting the APU.” This simple and prescient act is what ensured that his aircraft remained in Normal Law until touchdown. Another way of saying it is that he recognized the airplane had three pilots, not two. He made sure they each had what they needed to do their best work.

    Chesley Sullenberger knew his airplane, respected her and treated her like an equal. He expected Jeffrey Skiles to act professionally and he did. He was proud of his profession, his trade. That was his true achievement. The successful ditching followed from it, a corollary.

    I have committed to writing and teaching all I can in the time remaining to me. This year I started a blog, Arcadia, where two of the threads are Instrument Flying and AF447: Let’s Talk About Why.
    The first two blogs in the latter category are Angle of Attack and Virtual Reality.

    My take on this Cockpit Crisis can be summed up simply: Treat your Cockpit Automation as an equal. It is neither better nor worse than you are. It is not magic. It will not be your saviour. It is just another #$%# pilot.

    Please, all of you who are passionate about the subject, join the dialogue here or at David Learmount’s blog or my own or another I don’t know about yet. (Let me know.) In a trade where apprenticeship is fading away, the next generation deserve to hear our voices.

    Thank you,

    Chris Brown
    p.s. I couldn’t edit the links back in, so here they are:

    • What can you tell us on the pitot tube on the A320? It appears the difficulty started there.

    • Dear Chris:

      I disagree that you should treat your autopilot and the automation in our modern aircraft cockpits as an equal. I don’t believe we have achieved that level of technical hierarchy in our mechanical assistants yet.

      Instead, I believe automation should be regarded as a tool, an aid to assist the crew in performing a complex set of tasks that if done correctly, will achieve the desired result of a safe, comfortable flight that provides transportation between points A and B for the passengers and crew.

      Tools are only as good as the user employing them. They must be of good quality so they don’t break or cause injury. However, the user determines which tool to use for which job. The same occurs in the cockpit. Further, I personally treat these tools as suspect and watch them like a hawk, if I have made the choice to employ them to perform certain tasks. As a corollary, I also observe my co-pilots with the same level of interest while they are in control of the aircraft.

      I disagree with the Airbus concept of flight automation, although I have many hours flying Airbus aircraft and have a rating on the Airbus A-310 and greatly enjoyed flying that aircraft. I much prefer the Boeing concept which always places the ultimate command authority of the aircraft in the hands of the pilot. I also have a rating in the Boeing 747-400 and greatly enjoyed flying many hours in that aircraft.

      Automation is a tool, not an equal. Something to be used where appropriate and employed correctly. Automation can be an aid or a distraction, depending on the situation, training and experience of the individual using it.

      In any case, the pilot must ensure three things occur while aviating regardless of any automation devices involved.

      1. Maintain positive control of the aircraft.
      2. Analyze the situation, and
      3. Take proper action.

      All else is rubbish.

      Regards and Safe Aviating,

  11. Former Captain and James Canitz

    What can you tell us about the pitot tube on the A330 series? It appears that the difficulty with this particular flight started there, or at least the pitot tube was involved.

  12. For ArtCampbell:
    I have no direct experience with A330 pitots. However, it appears that there is a history of problems on that airplane. The Aviation Week article A330 Pitot Tube Icing Concerns Persist
    from January 3, 2010 is a good place to start.

    For James Canitz:
    The philosopher Seneca said hyperbole “asserts the incredible in order to arrive at the credible.” I confess I am guilty of both anthropomorphism and exaggeration in claiming that my sweet A320 was a pilot and a person and should be treated as an equal.
    Nevertheless I am trying to grasp a truth about the state of our trade. AF447 is just one of many recent accidents that should not have happened. In each case the pilots had lost situational awareness. One could argue that they had succumbed to the temptation of the glass cockpit: relax and it will do it for you. This is putting automation on a pedestal. It is saying, the computers and glass can make a more accurate picture than I can so why bother?
    I am speaking to human nature as well as to the state of technology. If we regard something/someone as inferior we risk missing crucial information because we discount it/him/her. In the opposite case we run an equal or even greater risk: we worship what we do not completely understand, come to rely on it, and are lost when it fails. I submit both are at work in these crashes. When I say treat your airplane as an equal, I am saying know your airplane and respect your airplane, just as you would your First Officer. You are a better team as a result.
    By the way, James, I agree with you. The automation and the First Officer must be watched with great interest when they are in control of the aircraft. And you are right that our software assistants have not yet earned, say, our compassion.
    Thank you both for your conversation. Let’s keep it going: there is so much to talk about that it will take books, not just blogs, to make a dent in it.

    Chris Brown

    p.s. link is:

  13. Former Captain “it appears that there is a history of problems on that airplane.”
    I had reached that conclusion from reading “Air France Flight 447 From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”. Thanks for the reference.
    So if engineers had not been able to fix a problem with a simple pitot tube, how can the data from computers be trusted?  Couldn’t the computers have been spewing out incorrect data just as the pitot tube is suspected of doing?

    Certainly I assume the discussion of supposed pilot reactions (that could have been computers outputs not based on pilot and other inputs) will be valuable. But it is very clear that this accident was an engineering, not pilot error.
    Art Campbell retired military pilot and aeronautical engineer. Never flew anything close to as advanced as an A330.

  14. Good article!

    Some thoughts from a long time in the industry and military flight instructing:

    1. STALL RECOVERY:Test Pilots for larger machines (JAR/FAR 25) always reduce angle of attack (AoA i.e.: nose down relative to pilot) and allow speed to 10-20% above stall speed BEFORE applying thrust. Airline pilots have been taught minimum height loss manouevring and forget that applying power actually makes matters worse when at the stall by inducing further nose pitch up (especially aeroplanes with underslung engines like B737/A320 etc). Furthermore a swept wing stalls at the wing tips first and the centre of pressure moves forward causing a nose up pitching moment which deepens the stall. The latter is very different to a straight wing aeroplane.How does a glider recover from a stall? (not with thrust!) So to unstall a wing pitch nose down to match the real AoA. In the case of AF447 this was a deep stall so the pilots would have had to have pitched into a Stuka dive (about 45 degrees below horizon).2. PILOT TRAINING:Commercial Pilots in Europe are being given less and less initial training before sitting in the Right Hand Seat of Airliners. It used to be get 700 hours for a Commericial Licence. Then it went down to under 200 hours and now the new MPL (Multi Pilot Licence) gives just 95 hours flying time and potentially no solo!.  So when the Captain dies of heart trouble – that might be their first time on their own in the cockpit in poor weeather at the end of a 4 sector day……………..This MPL route is great for the “approved” pilot mills/schools who churn out cadets for the low cost airlines. Not so good for the cadets (upwards of 150,000 Euros per course – a 25 year mortgage around their necks and very little hands on training). Not so good for customers (they don’t realize they are signing their lives to under 4000 hours in the cockpit total.  One successful UK Lo Cost airline has 60% of crew now low houred cadets on their twin jet airliners.  Fine when the computers are working. And now many of the new Captains have seen nothing but the low hour route and maybe 3000 hours of autopilot cruising.In the meantime the most experienced pilots who have done the full apprenticeship route of Flying Instruction, Turbo props, light jets etc – i.e.: those who can actually fly an aircraft safely and manually, can’t get a look in. Hardly any airlines will recruit them without a B737/A320 type rating (old airlines used to pay for this on the job training and bond the employee) or if they do have that rating then at least 500 hours on that type and flown within the past 3 months!  So to get a job you need a job or else be young and very very rich to go through the “approved”/Low hour school route.It’s high time consumers knew what they were stepping into on their holidays in the EU………….

  15. There is lots of experienced technical opinion below and while I spent several thousand hours in search and rescue, transport and antisubmarine operations as a navigator then, I had absolute confidence in the skill and training of the pilots with whom I flew and the maintenance in the aircraft we flew.
    I can’t say that for today’s airlines – for the technical assists that aircraft like the A330 have, or the training (or lack of that pilots come to the job with now, or for the contracted-out maintenance that a lot of airlines use now.
    My wife and I agree that if we can’t drive there, do on a train if you can find one  or go on the Queen Mary II (likely a re-positioning cruise) we sure as hell will not fly. 

  16. The last paragraph answers your question. Why is it that pilots tell everyone who will listen that experience is something that you just can’t train. Yet nobody listens. Fact, a 240 hour pilot has no place in the flight deck of a high capacity jet aircraft.

  17. Excellent article

  18. Hi Chris Have been trying to reach you by conventional email.  Very Unsuccessful.
    I spoke to you over the phone about information regarding your artilce on flight disasters.
    I feel I have some very valuable information for you.   I can be reached @
    could we possibly hook up some how?  The material I have is quite technical and not very
    easy to describe unless I am able to show you the work.  I hope you get this message.

  19. Sorry to say folks but these pilots were NOT in contol of  their aircraft. Why is the concept of
    hacking into the computer of the aircraft and having it controlled by some psychopath in cyberspace
    such an irrational idea?. This is 2012 –  we have the ways means and know how to do this.
    S.A.T. survelliance plus R.C.A. instruments throw in a little CERN technology (direct energy technology – read NIkola TESLA) (hell ! even Spiderman could figure this one out) and you get BOOOOOOOM!
    Easily planned
    Easily executed
    Dificult to investigate.