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Feb 24, 2010

AF447: A head crash in the cockpit, ice on the outside, and too much freight in the hold?

Some gravely serious allegations about the conduct of Air France flight AF447, which crashed in the middle of the Atlantic killing all 228 people on board last June 1, have been pub

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Part of the minute by last minute Der Spiegel account of the AF447 disaster
Free fall. Part of the minute by last minute Der Spiegel account of the AF447 disaster

Some gravely serious allegations about the conduct of Air France flight AF447, which crashed in the middle of the Atlantic killing all 228 people on board last June 1, have been published in the German magazine Der Spiegel.

Titled ‘Head Crash in the Cockpit’, or more colloquially, a stroke, Gehirnschag im Cockpit doesn’t seem to have made it into an English or French newspaper so far.

With the help of a fluent German speaker, this is a quick summary of the article, which would explain something that Plane Talking began drawing attention to here and in Crikey since last October.

That is, why did the flight appear to fly as straight as an arrow into towering thunderstorms when all around it flights diverted, and was its weather radar working?

And why was the French accident investigation showing hints of turning feral in relation to the slowness of Airbus to react to a known problem with ice prone external measuring devices called pitots on the A330, yet tip-toeing around around the issue of direct flight into violent storms, while saying, categorically, that the pitots were a factor but not the prime cause?

The jigsaw of items recovered from the ocean
The jigsaw of items recovered from the ocean

In summary, the German article, which quotes sources in the Air France pilot’s union, among others, says that AF 447 was overloaded prior to departure from Rio de Janeiro to Paris late on the night of May 31. Specifically, that it came in at 237,757 kgs, or a mere 243 kgs below maximum takeoff weight or the flight before another ten tonnes of freight was loaded.

It alleges the pilots then pulled the trick of filing a flight plan to Bordeaux, a slightly nearer destination that was ‘legit’ for the load, and declared Paris as the alternate or diversionary airport.

After which they decided to fly unflinchingly in a straight line regardless of the conditions, which if true, is a very uncomfortable illustration of the claims often heard about a new generation of career orientated pilots who will bend the fuel rules for their airlines, eroding flight safety standards in the process.

The sort of thinking that could put an air ambulance into the sea near Norfolk Island at night, perhaps?

Anyhow, after the reader recovers from the surprise of pilots digging a hole like this for themselves in Der Spiegel, they run into the known problem of pitots, the external speed measuring devices that inform the computer ‘brains’ of  all modern jets as to what the airspeed and air pressure really is on the outside, getting clogged with ice. Or in German, a case of the speed indications or geschwindigkeits going kaput.

Der Spiegel’s sources claim that nine such incidents occurred in the same year. They also claim, incredibly, that Air France had neglected to train in pilots in a simulator to handle the situation, which is described as so violent that often the eye can’t even focus on the flight manual, let alone find the relevant part of it in such a crisis.

It then points out that it has discovered that Airbus had also taken out a US patent on an invention to bypass the problems of faulty pitots, which it had acknowledged in its application as causing ‘errors in speed readings that could have catastrophic consequences.’

The article concludes with the claim that Airbus does have a little device that A330 operators can fit which in the case of unreliable speed indicators like those that seemed to plague the jet would indicate to pilots exactly what attitude they should hold the jet at under the particular circumstances encountered at the onset of failure, and until the ice was melted away by the heating elements in the pitot. This device, called Buss, cost about half a million dollars per jet, and had been turned down by Air France.

Der Spiegel basically holds the leading editorial franchise for bashing Airbus in Europe, and would disappoint many of its readers if it didn’t run a scathing indictment of the company or its wicked and evil parent EADS at least once every season. Those rants are usually full of obvious nonsense. The problem with Gehirnschlag im Cockpit is that only some parts of it have to be true for Air France to be in very serious trouble.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.

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13 comments

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13 thoughts on “AF447: A head crash in the cockpit, ice on the outside, and too much freight in the hold?

  1. concorde1980

    I am a German who read the article yesterday on my BB while being in a meeting and I had to restrain myself not to curse because this article is written so badly without any knowlege of the situation.

    It is the ususal mix of half- knowledge, putting quotes in the wrong context and mix it with some Boeing- Airbus controversy.

    My highlight is: “Das ist wie nachts auf der Autobahn bei Tempo 180 den Motor aus- und wieder anzustellen”

    I am ashamed of the “Spiegel”.

    Do not get me wrong: There is something fishy in this flight but it is sad to use it like that.

  2. Rainer Gromansperg

    Plane Talking has been quoted using your last para in comment #118 to this story on the Spiegel website. The comment adds a line after the quote:

    Traurig, dass so etwas im Ausland (Australien) über den Spiegel geschrieben wird.

    “Sad that such things are written abroad (Australia) about the Spiegel.”

  3. Ben Sandilands

    Parts of the article are in fact obnoxious. While my fluent friend took me through it on the screen in a phone call he just referred to them as rubbish and flicked over them and I’m certainly not going to repeat them.

    There are a number of things that have astonished me about the aftermath of the accident. One is the ferocity of the pilots union, and the depth of hatred between them and management, which is so apparent on the Eurocockpit forum. Then there are the very suss statements made by AF immediately after the accident became known when it gratuitously set in motion speculation about lightning strikes and short circuits. Was it a media spin tactic? The managements of major carriers rarely speculate on the causes of accidents and Air France seemed to me to have a line it wanted the media to pick up and run with about six hours after it happened, in the early hours Paris time. It introduced matters that were way off beam, and never supported by the ACARS messages, and made references to conversations between Paris and the pilots. I am starting to think something relevant might have been said to operations control in Paris before the flight departed, and that this is known to the BEA, since it has been very clinical about noting that nothing was said between jet and ops control during the flight.

    Some of the information in the article is very precise, such as the loading details. Other parts reflect the usual agenda concerning Airbus.

    I agree, something odd is going on.

  4. Rainer Gromansperg

    About the “little device”: See http://appft.uspto.gov, in Patent Applications click Publications Number Search, enter application number 20090306927.

  5. drpixie

    Sounds (not being fluent in German myself) like Der Spiegel has got at least a big chunk of their story completely wrong.

    Max take-off weight (MTOW) is an absolute limit on weight at take-off. It doesn’t matter how far you’re going, what you’re carrying (fuel, freight, pax) – you can’t legally take-off weighing more than the MTOW. (I say that as an appropriately qualified pilot.)

    If the aircraft was (pretty much) at MTOW, and they wanted to add 10 tonne of anything, they’d have to unload something else. It doesn’t matter if they were planning Bordeaux, Paris, or once-around-the-field-and-back-to-Rio – any take-off over MTOW is illegal.

    It’s certainly disappointing that such poorly researched articles are published. Der Spiegel has Das Ei on the face.

  6. tocotronic72

    The article doesn’t state that the MTOW was exceeded but only a 70 t fuel could be loaded due to 10 t cargo aboard (inter alia). The article than indicates that this is to few fuel to get to paris considering the compulsory security limits and therefore bordeax was typed in as destination. That implies the reason to go directly through the thunderstorm, not to risk a fuel stopover in bordeaux or even lisbon.

    I’m sorry but on that matter your translation is not correct.

    By the way: Der Spiegel is basically bashing everything because bashing generates readers. But: normally Der Spiegel is a rather serious magazine and there is always some truth in its articles.

  7. Ben Sandilands

    Tocotronic72,

    Point taken. The literal meaning of the words used in the article were read to me by someone who is very fluent in German but not especially familiar with aviation. The context would be that of a flight being optimised for payload rather than range, and being able to carry the desired payload to Bordeaux but have enough diversionary fuel left to legally reach CDG. While it could have reached Paris with the same payload it might not have carried enough fuel to divert to another airport, such as back tracking to Bordeaux, although there would have been closer alternatives.

    Tactics to ‘access’ the fuel carried for a diversion at the intended airport to ‘improve’ or ‘enable’ fuel efficiency and payloads has often been discussed down the years as a slippery slope that many flights negotiate sometimes with peril.

    For example, departing on a very long flight carrying diversionary fuel for a missed approach, or holding, and then a diversion to a field a short flight time from the intended destination involves burning a lot more than the mass of the diversionary fuel over a long time in order to have that statutory quantity left in the tanks of the jet unused at the end of the mission.

    It’s the sort of dismal maths that drives airline accountants to distraction, yet is essential to the safe, prudent and often legal operation of flights.

    One wonders if in its next report the BEA might not discuss this aspect of AF447.

  8. Tom Ace

    Spiegel now has an English language version of the article at
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,679980,00.html

  9. tocotronic72

    And, what do you think?

  10. Ben Sandilands

    Despite a fair bit of clutter or nonsense in the story, the essential thesis, that the jet was deliberately flown on as straight a line as possible to ensure that it could legally ‘divert’ to its real destination Paris from Bordeaux is one that worries me. I think there is a distinct possibility something like this happened, and from the way it is written, I think the author was extensively briefed by sources in the Air France pilot union. Who of course have their own agenda.

    The BEA has I mentioned earlier here and in posts last year already hung Airbus out to dry over the chronology of pitot icing issues and unreliable speed warnings, as has Air Caraibes over two similar incidents.

    Keep in mind the conviction with which the BEA stated on several occasions in the weeks after the crash that the blocked pitots were a contributing factor but not the main cause of the accident.

    It seems to me that the dictum that air disasters are caused by a chain of events ( or the coincidence of a number of things none of which on their own would have caused the crash) is going to prove true in the case of AF447.

  11. crr

    i had long ago concluded the sr. pilot was not in control of aircraft. modern radars are excellent and no sr. pilot would have flown into those storms!!!!!the reason for my reply now we must find the airplane to conclude with any amount of certainty as to what actualy happened….i am a usaf pilot and an engineer and was part of the columbia university’s lamont geological labs that located the us nuc sub thresher in the 1960’s also part of teams that deployed highly sophisticated electronic surveilance instruments for submarine detection and navigation in this part of the ocean. the us navy as well as the russians have more equipment on the ocean floor here than any other part of the ocean. refer to tom clancy’s ”the hunt for red october”,part of which is quiet factual. i cannot believe that the u.s. navy does not know the location of this airplane!!!!!!!as well as the russians although their instruments are not as good as ours.the three axis seismic instruments alone would detect an object a fraction of size of this fuselage landing on the ocean floor!! the french govt should lean on the u.s. and the russians to give up highly classified info for humanitarian reasons.additional fact: the under water mountain ranges are highly fragile and landslides are quit common.it would not take much to create a landslide to cover the airplane in which case it will never be found.

    think about it
    await comment

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    […] to the mix a rather badly written expose in Der Spiegel which is clearly sourced from the Air France pilots union which reveals that the jet was loaded to […]

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