Wednesday 21 March 2018

Was the loss of Flight 447 a tragedy waiting to happen?

Gemma O'Doherty

A friend who travels for a living called me late on Sunday. She had just seen the disturbing BBC documentary about the final minutes of Air France Flight 447, which plunged into the Atlantic a year ago this week, killing all of the 228 people on board. For a woman not easily rattled, she sounded upset. She was boarding a similar Airbus A330 the following day.

"It would make you think twice about what's really going on in the cockpit," she fretted down the line. "Who's really flying these planes? The pilot or a computer?"

I tried to quell her fears and rattled out some statistics that always keep me calm during scary bursts of turbulence. Come on, the odds of going down in an airplane are one in 11,000,000, compared to one in 5,000 in a car.

As for that giant of engineering? Planes don't come any safer.

She composed herself and returned to her packing. But five minutes earlier, my husband and I, gripped by the same programme, had asked ourselves the same question as the credits began to roll.

Probably the most compelling moment of the BBC2 investigation Lost: The Mystery Of Flight 447 was the sight of a top-gun fighter pilot being hurled around in his jet simulator as part of a regular training regime to push his skills to the limit, so he could deal with every eventuality manually in the air.

He and his plane survived every time because he was so used to rehearsing these life-threatening scenarios with his own brain and body.

The programme left you wondering whether the men and women who take us on holiday today are getting enough old-fashioned, hands-on flying, or do they spend too much of their working day cocooned in a fly-by-wire paradise where computers solve the problems for them.

Commercial pilots who command planes which really do fly themselves rarely have to push their aircraft to the limits of physics that military pilots in war zones face, but when they do, as the crew of Flight 447 did on that dreadful summer night, are they able to cope or have they become too reliant on technology to get them out of trouble?

We still don't know what caused such a cascade of catastrophic failures in the stormy night skies over the Atlantic on June 1, 2009.

The black box which holds the key to solving the worst aviation disaster in almost a decade lies buried in an underground mountain range three miles beneath the sea. Though the search continues, the chances of ever finding it are increasingly remote.

But what we do know is that despite being faced with a deadly, 250-mile-wide storm that night, which other planes moved off-course to avoid, Flight 447's pilots chose to leave their plane on autopilot.

It is also clear that the final, shocking 24 error messages from the cockpit were sent by a computer, not a human hand or voice. A few minutes later, it was all over.

This week, our thoughts are with the families who grieve for loved ones who died that dreadful night, including three brilliant young Irish doctors, Aisling Butler, Jane Deasy and Eithne Walls, who had not even reached their 30th birthdays.

But the aviation industry must confront this vital issue to ensure that the airmen and women of today are fully prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios in the sky when their computers no longer can.

Irish Independent

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