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Flight 447

This article, reporting on further investigation into the tragic loss of Air France 447 in the South Atlantic in 2009, says that the pilots were “untrained in high altitude manual flying”.  (So what, I have to ask, were they doing in the cockpit of a high altitude passenger jet?)

My instinctive, and no doubt infantile, response to this is, “Waaahhh!!! I want my Daddy!!!!!” 


Several months ago I lent my friend Jerry, who is co-managing the BB project, a Popular Mechanics issue which contained an analysis of the Air France 447 crash, based on the information the investigators had at the time.  By then they were aware that a pitot tube (a pressure-sensitive device which is mounted on the outside of the hull and measures air speed) had probably frozen, and that this had caused the aircraft's systems to switch to manual. 

We actually chatted about whether the pilots had been able to handle the aircraft on manual and whether flying standards had dropped with the increasing deployment of computerised avionics.  (Perhaps they haven't, but I find this article, and its implications for the passengers and their families, horrifying.)

It's hard to imagine Dad or his old flying mates being thrown by a frozen pitot, in spite of not having had sophisticated satellite-based instrumentation and navigation.  These old warriors flew through storms, not over them; they could navigate their way halfway round the world on basic instruments with the occasional star-sight; they could doze lightly at the controls with the aircraft flying on its rudimentary auto-pilot, and be woken instantly by the slightest change in engine pitch; they could land an aircraft with two foot of ice on the wings in the middle of a howling blizzard.  They were one with the machines they flew. 

With everything we've gained from technology, we've lost something too. 

I'm doing a lot of commuter flying at the moment, and came in from Jhb to Cape Town recently on a Mango Airlines flight.  Cape Town International was fogged in, and so the aircraft performed what is termed a Category III Auto-Landing.  This means that the airport's ILS (Instrument Landing System) and the aircraft's avionics perform a computerised approach and landing, without the pilots' actually touching the controls.  It was a strange experience, perhaps because it felt so obviously mechanical; a computer flies an aircraft with precisely measured movements of the control surfaces, and corresponding precise and somehow stiff aerial manoeuvers, whereas a pilot tends to, well, swoop just a little.  It was an accurate, but rather heavy landing.  Ker-thump. 

A couple of weeks later, the same thing happened, but I was flying Comair.  The aircraft, a slightly elderly Boeing 737–300, was obviously not equipped with the right avionics for a Cat III Auto-Land.  We came in on final approach, the lights dimmed, the flaps whined down, the aircraft slowed in preparation for the flare –  and suddenly the engines howled up to full power, the nose tilted up, and we were climbing steeply out of the approach path.

Around we went, and then the captain's voice came over the intercom; heavy fog had come in suddenly and the runway lights had not been visible at the required altitude to commit to a landing.  It didn't look good, he said, but he would make one more attempt, and then we would have to divert, probably to Port Elizabeth.

He got us down.

On balance, I think I'll stick with Comair.