Private photo of AF447 recovery ops found in public domain

An analysis of the Air France AF447 disaster in 2009 by FlightGlobal’s operations and safety editor David Learmount will cause more than further and much needed scrutiny of how airline pilots are trained to deal with inflight upsets because of what it reveals about how the pilots were seated before impact.

It says that after the captain of the A330-200 left his seat on the left hand side of the cockpit for a rest break, and the relief pilot occupied it, it was left locked into the fully aft position, that is, further than normal from the controls, until the impact that killed all 228 people on board the Rio to Paris flight 10 minutes later.

This is how Learmount describes the situation, with some added emphasis and the expansion of terms in square brackets as indicated.

During the handover, the captain had stayed on the flightdeck to hear the PF [pilot flying]  (in the right-hand seat) brief the newly arrived PNF [pilot not flying] about flight progress and weather situation in the ITCZ [intertropical convergence zone], including the light turbulence affecting the aircraft as they were speaking.

The captain did not give direct instructions about the task facing the pilots in the ITCZ, nor about the crew hierarchy he expected them to adopt during his rest, but he implied that the PF [pilot flying, who remained in the right hand or co-pilot’s seat] was in charge.

Normal procedure at Air France, notes the report, is for the pilot replacing the captain to take the decision-making role, no matter whether acting as PF or as pilot monitoring. The BEA says in its report that the captain’s failure to make the pilots’ roles clear may have set the tone for the almost total absence of effective co-operation (crew resource management) the pair subsequently displayed when things started to go wrong.

When the relief pilot arrived to take over, the captain’s seat had been motored fully back and to the left to allow the captain’s exit and provide access for his replacement. However, when the relief pilot sat down he never motored the seat forward to put himself within easy reach of the controls. He fastened his lap strap, but not the crotch strap. About 10 minutes later when the aircraft hit the dark sea, the seat was still against its back-stop.

Several captains of Airbus jets based in the region were amazed and horrified when the Learmount article was brought to their attention this morning. One said the actions of the more experienced relief pilot in remaining in a seating position of physical disengagement with the conduct of the flight was deeply shocking and indicative of a total failure of the cockpit crew interactions or co-operative culture that he regarded as a foundation for safe flight in airliners of any type.

This writer was told in a meeting in France in May with a person intimately familiar with the accident investigation that in the final minutes of the control crisis the captain had responded to a summons to the flight deck, and remained standing until impact immediately behind the two pilots.

From that position, but subject to the lighting in the cockpit the captain could have observed the position of the side stick controllers, and the official final report confirms that for almost the entire duration of the loss of control and impact sequence, the pilot flying held the side stick hard back, keeping the jet in a nose high attitude.

However the more experienced, but seemingly disengaged pilot not flying, who would normally have to shift in his seat to observe what the other pilot was doing with his side stick controller, would have had even less of a view of the other or right hand side of his body, where that control stick was located, as a consequence of his seat being locked back as far as it could go.

In his analysis Learmount also says.

Slightly less than 2min after the initial upset, says the BEA [France’s air safety investigator], control inputs meant the aircraft had established a nose-up attitude of +15˚, the angle of attack was 40˚, the engines were delivering maximum thrust, and the rate of descent was 10,000ft/min (51m/s). Looking at the instruments, the PF said: “I have no more displays.” The PNF said: “We have no valid indications.”

The report does not say it explicitly, but the pilots must either have stopped believing what they were seeing or, if they did give it any credence, their minds were rejecting the horrific implications of this combination of nose-high attitude, rapid rate of descent, and high power.

The shock of not understanding what they were seeing appeared to have immobilised them, although at that point, if they had been able to recognise the aircraft’s flight profile, they could still have recovered control by employing the stall recovery procedure.

The situation disclosed in the analysis is of specific relevance to the mishandling of AF447 by the pilots whose training and flight safety standards are the legal responsibility of Air France and its management and directors.  But as Learmount and others have said with cogency and urgency for some time, what happened to AF447 has enormous implications for those that believe cockpit automation in some way lessens the need for pilot professionalism and experience and specific training for recovering from control ‘upsets’.

This analysis sets up continued tension between those who believe risk management allows modern airlines to avoid the costs of  ‘legacy excellence’ and those who say this is a cop out which makes certain future air disasters in which pilots are confronted by control crises they aren’t trained to diagnose or correct in the brief time that will be available to prevent a crash.

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