The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Boeing vs. Airbus: The Air France Tragedy Revisited

In about a month or so, French aviation investigators will release a report detailing the causes of one of the greatest air disasters in recent times: the disappearance of Air France Flight 447 over the south Atlantic in 2009. The Telegraph has a preview of the findings, including an absolutely gripping retelling of the final moments of the doomed flight. The report seems to place the responsibility for the crash largely on pilot error, which could seriously hurt both Air France’s reputation and its bottom line as liability lawsuits start piling up.

But it wasn’t just pilot error that caused the disaster. The high-tech Airbus flight control system, which uses video-game-like “side stick” controllers to pilot the aircraft, seems to have contributed to the confusion which prevented the other pilots from correcting their colleague’s grievous and sustained errors of judgment.

It seems surprising that Airbus has conceived a system preventing one pilot from easily assessing the actions of the colleague beside him. And yet that is how their latest generations of aircraft are designed. The reason is that, for the vast majority of the time, side sticks are superb. “People are aware that they don’t know what is being done on the other side stick, but most of the time the crews fly in full automation; they are not even touching the stick,” says Captain King. “We hand-fly the aeroplane ever less now because automation is reliable and efficient, and because fatigue is an issue. [The side stick] is not an issue that comes up – very rarely does the other pilot’s input cause you concern.”

Boeing has always begged to differ, persisting with conventional controls on its fly-by-wire aircraft, including the new 787 Dreamliner, introduced into service this year. Boeing’s cluttering and old-fashioned levers still have to be pushed and turned like the old mechanical ones, even though they only send electronic impulses to computers. They need to be held in place for a climb or a turn to be accomplished, which some pilots think is archaic and distracting. Some say Boeing is so conservative because most American pilots graduate from flying schools where column-steering is the norm, whereas European airlines train more crew from scratch, allowing a quicker transition to side stick control.

Whatever the cultural differences, there is a perceived safety issue, too. The American manufacturer was concerned about side sticks’ lack of visual and physical feedback. Indeed, it is hard to believe AF447 would have fallen from the sky if it had been a Boeing.

We wouldn’t want to turn this awful tragedy into some sort of grotesque game of gotcha, trumpeting Boeing’s supposedly superior safety due to more conservative design choices. 228 people have died a horrible death, and the focus of the inquiry should remain making sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Nevertheless, as the article makes abundantly clear, even as technology advances and airplanes become increasingly more automated, pilots remain critical in preventing disasters. If the systems they’re piloting end up bewildering them or not providing enough feedback for them to make the right decisions, the systems are poorly designed. Via Meadia hopes that, even if Air France ends up taking most of the blame for the disaster, Airbus will consider adopting some of Boeing’s stodgier designs for safety’s sake. And until the problem is fixed, some nervous flyers out there might find themselves asking what company made the planes their favorite airline has chosen to fly.

Published on April 30, 2012 12:00 pm
  • Kevin

    As a passenger I want airline manufacturers to compete on who builds the safest aircraft. It may be unseemly but it’s better for us in the long run.

  • Anthony

    If Quick Take’s synosis is valid, then this is serious transportation, industrial, technological, and manufacturing matter. Air travel safety is a prerequisite (acknowledging probability of accidents); and if Airbus systems are determined to be both bewildering and feedback deficient les’s remedy it for both indutry and passenger interests.

  • JKB

    It is interesting that the given reason the side stick isn’t often a problem is ignored as a possible fault line. Flying in automation is convenient and efficient but it takes the pilot further away from the plane’s operation. Therefore, not only must he combat the boredom of dial and readout monitoring, he must also take over cold in the event of an automation failure. Three dimensional control positioning allows the pilot to keep the feel of the plane’s flight in his eyes and hand with less need for mental calculation and modeling of the control surface positioning in an emergency.

    We have big brains to “think” out new ideas and solve problems but we are animals who react physically with conditioning of training. The feedback of the muscle movement arriving in our brain before it has had time to run the numbers, while the eyes are already reporting the new conditions.

    There is a reason for the saying,
    “Train as you fight”
    If you have to think about it, you’re behind and probably in mortal danger.

  • dearieme

    Big air crashes in the fleets of the advanced nations are rare. So there is a danger of over-interpreting each one of them. Mind you, in that debate I might well have sided with Boeing.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The question of which control system is preferred seems like it could be addressed by use of simulators to see how humans respond to crises. It is hard to believe that was not done beforehand and it would be interesting to know the results.

  • Kris

    But there is another, worrying implication that the Telegraph can disclose for the first time: that the errors committed by the pilot doing the flying were not corrected by his more experienced colleagues because they did not know he was behaving in a manner bound to induce a stall. And the reason for that fatal lack of awareness lies partly in the design of the control stick – the “side stick” – used in all Airbus cockpits.

    “Disclose for the first time”? Hardly.

    Humor, for those who consider it appropriate.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Airbus and Air France are both core enterprises for the French. They will throw the pilots (who likely deserve much of the blame) under the bus, and sheild both Airbus and Air France from any realistic consequences.

    This will happen again.

  • Corlyss

    I think I am correct in observing that most American pilots are trained by the US military, while the Europeans have no such luxury since they have no defenses to speak of after outsourcing theirs to us. No military training = that their skills are less adequate.

  • Jimmy J.

    As a retired airline pilot who never flew the Airbus (My experience was on Boeing and Douglas) I have an opinion that is based on what pilots I know who have flown the Airbus tell me. The unfortunate fact is that Airbus designs their control and flight director systems to be flown almost exclusively in the auto mode. The idea being to make the pilot’s role that of a monitor, and in an emergency, the backup. But when the automation fails and the pilot is rusty in his piloting skills, there is a problem.

    My habit was to alternate using auto pilot as much as possible for one leg and then flying the next leg manually except for the cruise segment. That way I maintained my familiarity and skill with both modes of operation. I think instituting such a policy may be the way to go for Airbus pilots. Of course that policy doesn’t provide feedback to the non-flying pilot unless there is some sort of indicator of stick position, which might be retrofitted. I’m confident that a fix or fixes will be instituted because that is the way aviation has become safer.

  • Glen

    The loss of AF 447 was due less to design difference between Airbus and Boeing and more to the philosophical, cultural and political differences between Europeans and Americans.

    As the linked Telegraph article notes, most American air transport pilots “graduate from flying schools … whereas European airlines train more crew from scratch.” This passing comment — intended to shed light on cockpit design difference — instead yields a great truth about American vs. European flying. The U.S. has a robust and vibrant general aviation sector. Europe does not. It is relatively easy (and not terribly expensive) to both learn to fly — and to actually fly — small general aviation aircraft in the U.S. In Europe, both learning to fly and actually flying small aircraft is very difficult and very expensive.

    One significant impact of this difference is that most future American air transport pilots learn to fly in small general aviation aircraft (such as Cessna, Piper, Bonanza or Cirrus) and earn most of their flying time in non-instrument conditions. In other words, most American pilots instinctively know how to fly a plane by its stick and rudder because that’s how they learned to fly.

    In Europe, without an active general aviation sector, future air transport pilots learn to fly in simulators that mimic flying large, highly automated jet aircraft. They lack the comparable hands-on stick and rudder skills that virtually every American pilots possess.

    In reality, the level of automation differs little between Boeing and Airbus. Sure, there’s less control feedback on an Airbus. But today’s airline pilots flying either manufacturer’s equipment (in either Europe or the U.S.) are strongly urged by both their respective national authorities and by their employers to utilize automation whenever possible and to refrain from “hand flying.” In the U.S., this policy has, to date, been somewhat attenuated by older pilots (such as Jimmy J.) who persist with occasional hand-flying (see the blog Flight Level 390 for ongoing commentary from an American Airbus 320 airline captain who both loves Airbus automation but still regularly flies his “Electric Jet” by sidestick and rudder). In Europe, no such tradition or constituency exists. And because of this, we have tragedies like AF 447 where entire aircrews can ride a modern jet aircraft into the ocean.

  • RUBEN

    Creo que los 2 fabricantes deberian cambinar conocimientos, y tecnologia entre si.. por un lado existe la tecnologia la cual es superada en algunas veses por el ser humano la caul no logramos entender todavia al 100% y por otro lado los pilotos estadounidenses tienen la gran experiencia y capacidad de controlar sus aviones. en pocas palabras devemos convinar experiencia y tecnologia y ambos hacer un avion que no cause problemas y a su ves sea volado por personal altamente capacitado y experimentado para fines del buen servicio.

  • bloomingdedalus

    On the contrary, fatal accidents are very important reasons to evaluate a position, such as Airbus’ seeming philosophy of overriding pilot commands. At the same time, since most crashes are pilot error, they have a strong case for stating that a computer should be able to override pilots when it comes to some systems. However, there are cases where computer overrides have created crashes pilots were trying to avert and may very well have averted were it not for the computer’s intervention.