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May 17, 2011

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Le Figaro, one of the major newspapers in France, is running a story that says Airbus has no cause for concern from an initial look at the data extracted from the flight data recorder retrieved from the wreckage of Air France flight AF447.

The report infers that the accident was caused by actions taken by the pilots.

It says the task of the BEA, the French accident investigator, is now to find out what happened in the cockpit, and that whether any errors are the legal responsibility of the pilots or Air France.

(In aviation law and international convention the answer is clear. Air France is responsible for its operational standards and compliance with safety procedures and thus the actions of its pilots.)

All 228 people on board the Air France Airbus A330-200 which was flying between Rio de Janeiro and Paris died when it crashed in the mid Atlantic on June 1, 2009.

Because of various earlier hints from the accident investigator the Le Figaro report cannot be readily dismissed as an unseemly dash to preempt any blame being attached to Airbus, and its reference to sources in government and the BEA leave out, perhaps too obviously, the other body with an intimate knowledge of the accident, which is the public prosecutor’s office, which is contemplating bringing involuntary manslaughter charges against senior management figures in Airbus and Air France.

The BEA’s first press conference after the crash referred to a known problem with ice forming in the external speed measuring devices called pitots that were fitted to the A330 as being one of the factors in the accident, but not its main cause.

That gave rise to a number of questions which neither Air France nor the BEA have as yet answered as to whether AF447 was flown directly through a towering tropical thunderstorm instead of around it, and whether it is known if its weather radar was operational at the time of the crash.

However automated status messages being transmitted by what is known as the ACARS system to the Air France operational base did show that the jet’s autopilot had disconnected at about the time the pitots failed, depriving its control systems of reliable airspeed readings.

There have been at least 13 closely studied incidents like this with A330s up until the time of the crash, all of which were transitory in duration and were followed by a resumption of normal flight.

Since the accident Air France has conducted an independent review of its safety culture but has refused to disclose the major findings other than to say they had been accepted.

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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8 comments

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8 thoughts on “French press quick to point finger at AF447 pilots

  1. Zortiander, if you believe (as you have written) that “no aircraft ever has really bad technical issues,” I suggest you take a course in the history of aviation and you will find that for over 100 years aircraft have experienced such issues.

    My post was addressing the fact that whenever there is an airbus crash, airbus is always quick to blame the pilots. The French press are already doing it in this particular incident even though the data found on the FDR has not even been released! This is the problem when the government has a vested interest in company. They do not blame their beloved national treasure (Airbus), but the dead pilots. Just as you seem to be implying.

  2. Dannyboy1, no aircraft ever has really bad technical issues, there is always pilot error. That’s a simple fact of no country ever going to let their aircraft industry down or into a big crisis – simply too expensive.

    Hugue, your naivete in all respects, if you look at the statistics concerned with press freedom, France is ranking on place 42 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Press_Freedom_Index), quite far away from where it should be, with a steadily worsening situation. You might also remember the last scandal (Betancourt) where French secret police raided the journalist’s home and destroyed all evidence. France is not a democratic country in the modern sense. I live there, I’ve been living there quite some time, and it is not near the standards where it should be. Of course, they might release cockpit conversations – and maybe even the real thing, unedited. However, these covnersation don’t give an exact view on the situation, it is the legal interpretaion thereof that is important in the end.

  3. Of course they are quick to point to pilot error. Airbus planes never have technical or structural issues. “Round up the usual suspects!” because dead men tell no tales.

  4. Just a quick comment on Le Figaro’s assertion that: “It says the task of the BEA, the French accident investigator, is now to find out what happened in the cockpit, and that whether any errors are the legal responsibility of the pilots or Air France.”

    Determining where the legal responsibility lies is most emphatically *not* the task of the BEA. The BEA’s task, and the same goes for any other accident investigator, is to provide a factual analysis of the probable cause and contributing factors for the crash and to offer recommendations to improve aviation safety. As most accident reports state the intent is not to assign liability or blame, but to increase aviation safety.

    If anyone has the task of assigning legal responsibility it is the law courts, civil and criminal, and by extension lawmakers and prosecutors. It is however highly debatable whether the criminal prosecution of aviation accidents contributes to the goal of making aviation (even) safer. Criminal prosecution will make people less likely to admit errors and criminal investigations can hinder the technical investigation of accidents.

  5. France is not Russia neither Iran or China!
    When the report will be ready I am sure they will even broadcast the cockpit conversations dear Zortiander.
    Le Figaro is Mr Sarkozy favorite’s newspaper, but this does not means they are writing bullshit.
    From now on this is just a rumor not confirmed by airfrance, EADS Airbus and the BEA.
    Preliminary report might comes for the end of the week. The full report will come at some point in summer (june to september).
    Anyway, everything seems to start with this pitot tube.

  6. One of the captain’s I flew with in the cockpit of an A330 (of a major French carrier) had also encountered transitory loss of speed indication – however, weather was calm, so the pilots kept the airplane level and thrust continuous; readings resumed after a short time.

    However, as you also pointed out correctly in another post (which I remember to critizie harshly), Le Figaro is not an independent newspaper but highly dependent upon the state – and France would never endanger Airbus in any way; so them reporting that pilots are to blame is to be expected, I guess.

  7. Is the French newspaper being “professional” in speculating the cause behind the Air France A330-200 AF477 crash?

    The A330-200 and Air France both have a very good safety record.

    And why would airlines direct its own flights into storms directly?

    This deviates from my knowledge that most airlines request their pilots to deviate from existing path should storm be present.