On 1st June, 2009 an accident was reported in the Atlantic Ocean involving the AF447 which was travelling from Rio to Paris. The tragedy claimed 228 lives of passengers and cockpit crew. The cause of the accident was allegedly related to a malfunction of the cockpit that resulted in the plane losing altitude and crashing into the Ocean. The crash of AF447 triggered increasing concerns that could lead to loss of control and whether they are linked to cockpit automation (Martins, 2012). With more sophistication of technology, some of the crucial functions that were initially performed by pilots have now been automated. The aim of automation of the cockpit has been to improve safety in aviation. However, as overall aviation increases, more concerns get raised on incidents on loss of control, leading to increased causes of fatalities. More often than not, when pilots fail to recognize potentially dangerous situations, it leads to losing control, hence fail to correct them and causing the plane to enter unstable conditions that lead to its crash. Such situation can occur from unusual events that are often outside the pilot's experience (Wiener, 2014). As a result, the pilots may not manage to make corrective adjustments to stabilize the plane once more. This study attempts to unravel the actual causes of the AF447 aircraft accident and whether there was something that could have been done to avoid the crash.
Review of Factual Information
AF447 had traveled over three and a half hours into the night over the Atlantic Ocean. As the aircraft encountered super-cooled droplets suspended in the cloud layers, ice accretion occurred on the plane wings (Lee, 1999). The flight parameters and atmospheric conditions influenced the accumulation. Aerodynamics affect the deposition, heat and mass transport leading to transient icing. For AF447, the speed sensors on Airbus A330 suffered transient icing which caused inconsistent airspeed readings. As a result of the unreliable data from the readings, autopilot got disconnected by the flight computers. The flight computers also withdrew flight envelope protection. While programming the automated cockpit, if the speed sensors gave inconsistent readings, the autopilot was to get disconnected, and flight envelopes been withdrawn (Martins, 2012).
After disconnection of the autopilot, strings of messages displayed on the front screen on the cockpit, giving crucial data on the aircraft's status. The next step should have involved one pilot maintaining the fight path manually while the other was required to diagnose the problem and try to correct the situation. Unfortunately, the first pilot, who was inexperienced at manually flying at such altitudes, got startled and did the opposite of what was required (Martins, 2012). At high altitudes, pilots rarely hand-fly since the safe flight envelope is much restricted there hence the pilot also had reduced automatic protection. As a result, the corrective adjustment could not be met and resulting in rapid loss of altitude.
As the autopilot disconnected and the pilot embarked on correcting the situation. However, as the pilot tried to correct the slight roll that occurred, he moved his side stick from side to side thus accidentally over-correcting the slight roll. Consequently, he caused the plane to roll sharply right and left several times. At the same time he also pulled the stick back and caused the aircraft to climb steeply. After a while of climbing the plane stalled and started to descend rapidly, almost in free-fall. Unfortunately, despite multiple cues, neither pilots realized that the plane had stalled. Instead, they got confused and misinterpreted the descent of the plane as meaning that it was flying very fast. In the confusion, they actually tried to reduce the thrust, hence moved to employ the speed brakes. However, the corrective attempts turned out to be the opposite of what was required to make the corrective adjustment (Martins, 2012). In the event, the second pilot overruled the first one and attempted to take control of the cockpit. The first pilot, however, continued to try and fly the plane. The two simultaneously gave inputs that contradicted each other, without even recognizing that they were doing so. By the time the cockpit crew came to realize what was happening, the aircraft had already lost so much altitude that the remainder was insufficient to recover. The AF447 aircraft, therefore, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and causing loss of life to all 228 passengers and crew who were on board (Martins, 2012).
Analysis and Evaluation of the accident
This tragedy involving AF447 aircraft frankly unravels the relationship between humans and sophisticated technology. The beginning of the crash can be traced back to the time of unexpectedly abrupt handover of control to the pilots. First of all the pilots were unused to hand flying at high altitude. Therefore, the poor handover meant the beginning of problems for the crew, being forced to hand-fly the aircraft at such high altitude without experience (Wiener, 2014). The abruptness of the handover also contributed to the start of the crash since the pilots panicked and, therefore failed to recognize the right protocol to stabilize the aircraft. The panic that kicked in resulted to misinterpretations of what transpired thus leading to miscalculations of response taken towards corrective adjustments. In a simulation exercise conducted after the accident, it was demonstrated that AF447 would have remained with at its cruise altitude following the autopilot disconnection without pilot inputs. However, the lack of experience in the pilots resulted in futile attempts to manually fly the plane as the pilots thought it was the right call to make at the moment (Martins, 2012).
The aircraft system designers, however, failed to comprehend the possibility of an aircraft stalling without the cockpit crew realizing it; automation of the cockpit was not designed to misinform the crew whenever a plane stalled (Martins, 2012). However, the failure to inform correctly made it possible for the plane to be in a stall without the crew realizing. Such features as misinformation on vital occurrences with the aircraft, therefore, added to the problems by the pilot. Features like automation of the cockpit were designed to help pilots under normal circumstances. However, in abnormal circumstances, failure to inform would mean misinformation as well. For example, the stall warning was designed to shut off when the forward airspeed fell below a certain speed to avoid distractions of false alarms (Wiener, 2014). The AF447 aircraft's speed apparently fell below the threshold as it made its rapid descent. The pilots consequently made the correct recovery actions twice by putting the nose-down. However, in the two attempts, the forward speed of the aircraft increased, thus causing the stall alarm to reactivate. As a result the two pilots encountered difficulty in grasping the nature of their dilemma. The increase in airspeed must have led the pilots into deducing that the aircraft was moving at increased forward thrust hence the brakes application.
Automation and Aviation safety
Incorporation of technology allows for efficiency in systems to make them error-free on many levels. However, the same systems often end up creating systemic vulnerabilities that end up in catastrophes occasionally. This contradicting aspect of technology is termed "the paradox of almost safe systems" (Martins, 2012). In most organizations, this paradox brings significant implications involving the deployment of technology. For instance, in the AF447 crash scenario, there was significance in managing handovers by machines to humans. If the handover could have appropriately happened, the pilots could have made the right calls, and the plane could not have crashed. It is possible to deduce that the likelihood of occurrence of such conditions, where a handover is required, have increased significantly with automation and sophistication of technology.
With the dramatically obvious benefits of technology as well as occasional risks, automation has captivatingly infiltrated commercial aviation. However, almost everyone has their equivalent of the autopilot with the main idea extending to other environments. Unfortunately, there is a substantial likelihood of humans struggling to re-engage when automation abruptly withdraws since it has kept most people completely safe almost all of the time. As a result, automation is likely to lead to the subtle erosion of humans' cognitive abilities. It may prove challenging to cope with strenuous conditions when the cognitive skills are required the most, as these abilities often manifest themselves in unusual situations (Wiener, 2014).
Prevention of the Accident
The pilots of AF447 failed to diagnose the severity of the problem accurately since they received inaccurate data from the pilot tube (Martins, 2012). However, the accident could have been prevented if the pilots had adequate training involving the handover. Use of enhanced autopilot system could have also prevented the accident.
Secondly, there is need to capitalize on the benefits of technology while upholding cognitive capabilities required to control unique situations. We should not wait for dire circumstances to identify complex problems and respond to them instantaneously. While technology permeates our lives more, we should boost our experiences to combat complex issues and react to them without getting startled and making wrong calls.
Following the accident involving AF447, airlines were urged to encourage more hand-flying by the FAA urged airlines. The recommendation by FAA aimed to avoid the erosion of primary skills in piloting CITATION Mar12 \l 2057 (Martins, 2012).
Lee, S. &. (1999). Experimental investigation of simulated large-droplet ice shapes on airfoil aerodynamics. Journal of Aircraft, 36(5), 844-850.
Martins, E. &. (2012). Automation under suspicion-case flight AF-447 Air France. Work, 41(Supplement 1), 222-224.
Wiener, E. L. (2014). Cockpit automation. In Human factors in aviation, 433-461.
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