Magistrates investigating the Air France flight 447 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1st, 2009 have exonerated both Airbus and Air France, citing pilot error as the cause of the crash.
The regularly scheduled Rio de Janeiro to Paris flight was over the Atlantic Ocean three hours and 16 minutes into the flight when, at 02:14 UTC, it disappeared. Because of the 13 hour duration of the flight, including pre-flight preparations per Air France procedures, the Airbus A330 had three pilots on-board, a captain and two first officers.
As the captain, number two in the rotation, went to take his break, he briefed the two co-pilots and informed the cabin crew that they would soon be entering turbulence.
Air France 447 encountered a storm over the Atlantic
A few minutes later the aircraft encountered icing conditions with what sounded like hail hitting the plane registering on the cockpit voice recorder.
As the planes, anti-icing system came on, ice started to accumulate on the pitot tubes that measure the aircraft’s speed. Per procedures, one of the two co-pilots (Pierre-Cédric Bonin) turned the aircraft slightly and reduced speed from Mach 0.82 to 0.80 as is normal when flying through turbulence.
At around 02:10:05 UTC with the pitot tubes iced up, the automatic pilot system turned off as it could no longer read the aircraft’s speed. Bonin took over the aircraft using the side stick priority button as the aircraft was being tossed around in the turbulence. During the next 30 seconds, the aircraft rolled from right to left as Bonin tried to compensate.
While doing this he suddenly pulled back on the controls raising the aircraft’s angle of attack which decreased the plane’s speed.
The aircraft stalled, plummeting into the ocean
By the time the co-pilot had negated the roll the plane was climbing at an unprecedented rate reaching its maximum altitude of 38,000 feet.
Now going into a stall with no reliable speed data the aircraft stall warning alarms went off, but it was too late to stop what happened next. Returning to the cockpit with the aircraft descending steeply to avert the stall, captain Dubois realized that co-pilot Bonin was still pulling the aircraft’s nose up.
Now with its engines still running but not enough airflow over the wings to keep it airborne, Air France 447 plummeted into the ocean killing all 228 people on board. Following a lengthy investigation, France 24 says that all charges against Airbus and Air France are to be dropped.
French Magistrates Nicolas Aubertin and Fabienne Bernard said that the accident was the result of a unique convergence of elements “which thus brought up evidence of previously unperceivable dangers.”
As such, they decided that both Air France and Airbus were not liable. In summing up they said they could not ascribe fault to the companies in what appeared to be a case of pilot error.
The judge’s ruling is an insult
The leading association of victims’ families called the decision an “insult to the memory of the victims”.
A lawyer representing the victims’ families said an appeal would be launched against the magistrate’s decision.
“The judges have just written in black and white that the icing of the pitot sensors had nothing to do with the accident. It’s nonsense,” Sébastien Busy told Reuters. “If the pitot sensors hadn’t iced up, there wouldn’t have been an accident.”
The crash of Air France 477 was the worst in the airline’s history and brought up questions of pilot training after co-pilot Bonin acted incorrectly when the plane stalled.
Judicial authorities in France charged both Airbus and Air France with manslaughter but dropped the charges against Airbus, focusing instead on Air Frances failure to train pilots on what to do if pitot tubes malfunctioned.
Since this deadly crash, pilot training in France and several other counties have been increased and yet from what we have seen in the recent 737 MAX crashes it still requires more work.