A cockpit filled with confusion doomed all those on board Air France's overnight flight from Rio to Paris, as three pilots – including a senior training captain – failed to grasp they had stalled the big Airbus A330 high over the Atlantic and it was falling nearly straight down.
That grim picture of supposedly highly trained pilots failing to demonstrate basic airmanship emerges from the latest report from accident investigators.
The pilots showed a "total incomprehension of the situation," Alain Bouillard, the lead investigator with France's accident investigation agency, the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses, said in an interview published after Friday's interim report was released.
Among the BEA's recommendations: Pilots get better training in hand-flying at high altitude where the air is thin and modern jetliners handle differently. Most airlines prefer pilots to rely on computer-controlled auto-pilots at cruise altitudes. But all pilots are supposed to remain proficient through recurrent training and airlines are supposed to require pilots to handle difficult situations – such as losing an engine at takeoff – in full-motion simulators.
Still unanswered is exactly how the Air France pilots turned a serious, but not unprecedented, temporary loss of airspeed sensors into a major disaster on June 1, 2009. Nor is it clear how all three pilots became confused and in disagreement about whether they were pointed up or down, and managed to ignore loud and repeated "Stall" warnings. The warning, an artificial voice calling "Stall, Stall," is accompanied by a loud chime and a red warning light on the instrument panel. Yet for more than three minutes, the pilots failed to push the nose down, regain flying speed, and recover. (In aerodynamics, a stall is when airflow over the wings slows to the point where lift is lost. Recovery requires an immediate lowering of the nose.) Air France will face massive – perhaps record-setting – civil damages if, as now seems likely, it can be proven that the pilots failed to regain control of an undamaged aircraft, with all its flight controls and engines functioning. Those damages will be even higher if the long minutes of fall were evident to the doomed passengers.
"The situation was salvageable," BEA director Jean-Paul Troadec told a news conference when asked if the pilots could have ended the stall.
Other pilots on other airlines have survived similar instances on Airbus A330s, as well as other aircraft.
Air France's training manual is pretty clear on the what to do in case of an aerodynamic stall. "APPLY NOSE DOWN PITCH CONTROL TO REDUCE AOA [ANGLE OF ATTACK]" it says in red letters.
Aside from ex-military pilots, stunt flyers and glider pilots, few airline pilots will have ever experienced a full aerodynamic stall and most training is designed to avoid stalls, not recover from them.
Air France continued to defend the pilots, saying they showed "an unfailing professional attitude, remaining committed to their task to the very end."
However, Air France's pilot training and performance was already under scrutiny before the 2009 disaster. Four years earlier, an Air France crew landed an Airbus A340 nearly half-way down a rain-slicked runway in Toronto rather than the correct procedure, which calls for aborting an unstable landing to make another attempt. In Toronto, the Airbus careened off the end of the runway, tipped in a ravine and was destroyed by fire, although heroic efforts by the cabin crew managed to evacuate all of the passengers safely.