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.