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Air France crash ‘could have been avoided’

October 5th, 2009
Divers recovering a huge part of the rudder of the Air France A330 aircraft lost in midflight over the Atlantic ocean

Divers recovering a huge part of the rudder of the Air France A330 aircraft lost in midflight over the Atlantic ocean

The recent Air France crash over the Atlantic could have been avoided if the crew had access to more recent weather maps, an investigation by two of the airline’s senior pilots has concluded.

The pilots of Flight 447, which crashed off the coast of Brazil on June 1, killing 288 people, would almost certainly have steered round storm clouds clearly visible on satellite maps available shortly before take-off, according to the Air France pilot’s union, Spaf – whose president co-wrote the report.

Instead, they plotted their route using a map based on data compiled 24 hours before take off. At that stage, the coast looked relatively clear. It was only later that dangerous clouds gathered in the zone the Airbus A330 went down. A calmer route was possible further west.

“All means should have been given to the crew to avoid entering such a zone,” the report suggests. Air France has insisted they had respected all weather procedures and other companies took the same flight path.

Although weather was a factor, the report squarely blames defective air speed sensors for the crash. This contradicts the findings of the French agency leading the investigation, the BEA, which has said that such “pitot probes” were a factor, but not the leading cause of the disaster.

The report criticises Airbus, Air France, civil aviation authorities and the European Aviation Safety Agency among others for underestimating the problems with the sensors.

It argues that all of them knew of problems with the pitot tubes over the past 14 years and that, had they moved to correct them, the crash “would have probably been avoided”, in extracts published by the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

“Such an event cannot be reduced to a single cause,” said Gerard Arnoux, president of the Spaf union.

“But there is an unchallengeable truth that we must insist on: without the breakdown of the pitot tubes, the accident wouldn’t have happened,” Mr Arnoux told the newspaper.

The report, which will be sent to BEA investigators this week, also concludes that Airbus’ recommended emergency manoeuvres were “at best confusing, at worst dangerous”. At the time of the crash, Airbus recommended increasing thrust if air sensors failed. The report said at high altitude, this can send the plane into free fall.

By Henry Samuel

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