Bloggers Blame Crash on Airbus A330 Computer

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Some bloggers blame the Air France AF 447 crash on the Airbus A330 computer. They're speculating -- often in the most ignorant way -- about the safety of fly-by-wire aircraft. Others work hard to correct these mistakes; some even accusing Boeing of fanning the flames.

In IT Blogwatch , Richi Jennings shakes his head at the foolishness. Not only is it an extremely sad time for those left behind by this tragedy, it's also sad to see widely-read commentators get so much wrong, so badly.

Ben Sandilands tells us what we know so far:

While nothing will stop the torrent of speculation about the causes of the Air France crash in the mid-Atlantic on 1 June ... there is now a progression of events ... known to have occurred in the final minutes of ... 228 people who were on their way to Paris from Rio de Janeiro.


They begin with the autopilot disconnecting because of problems with the systems that provide it with essential data, including air speed. ... the jet was flying at perhaps the worst possible speed into what may have been one of the worst possible places to go, a storm cell.


The AF447 accident has spawned an incredible amount of garbage ... about “scarebuses” and the “dangers of computers” and so forth. MORE

Patrick Smith disagrees, thinking lightning and electrical failure are more likely:

The gist of the accident appears pretty clear: Air France Flight 447 was victimized by a terrible storm. How the airplane got into this storm, and what exactly happened once it got there, are two fascinating if perhaps unanswerable questions. ... So we are left to speculate -- as to how an experienced crew, at the controls of a $100 million jetliner, could have found itself in such deadly circumstances. ... I have a hard time believing the Air France pilots would have been so reckless as to fly into an area of expectedly violent condition.


The crew was dealing with the loss of important instruments and controls. There would be confusion at this point, with warnings going off, messages flashing and some very urgent troubleshooting. If, as part of the mix, the cabin had suddenly decompressed, it may not have been noticed right away. Without use of supplemental oxygen, the pilots would have had about 30 seconds of useful consciousness -- maybe less. MORE

goombah99 explains why flying high and heavy in a big storm is bad news:

At [that] altitude ... there is a 25 knot window between stall and super-sonic, both of which are fatal if you happen to be in a thunderstorm. So the pilot has almost no control. He can hardly turn the plane because that would require more thrust than the engines could provide and maintain the 25 knot range. MORE

But Michael Hickins insists that he knows best (even though he clearly doesn't):

It's no secret that commercial airplanes are heavily computerized, but as the mystery of Air France Flight 447 unfolds, we need to come to grips with the fact that in many cases, airline pilots' hands are tied when it comes to responding effectively to an emergency situation. It's been well established that Air France Flight 447 went down because on-board computers received conflicting information from sensors on the outside of the plane.


Flight 447 was an Airbus, which uses so-called "fly-by-wire" technology that relies entirely on electronic rather than hydraulic and manual systems. Boeing jets also use fly-by-wire, but allow pilots to override computers in an emergency -- whereas Airbus systems don't. ... It's not surprising that an American company errs on the side of individual freedom while a European company is more inclined to favor an approach that relies on systems. MORE

Chris Travers makes it clear how wrong Hickins is:

The Airbus plane DID return nearly full control to the pilot (nearly because there are still limits to things like how much roll one can request, but these COULD be built in mechanically in the absence of fly-by-wire).

The real issue here is that the computer system detected invalid input and handed the control back to the pilots (under "alternate law" which means most safety rules are disabled), but the pilots may not have had enough information to know whether the control was handed back to them in a safe state, and if not, how to correct. MORE

nairnr agrees :

This has got nothing to do with what a Boeing plane will let you do versus Airbus ... The autopilot disengaged, and when the ADIRU faulted, the plain went into alternate law which does not offer the same envelope protection as normal, because the computer knows that its own inputs can't be trusted. Fly by wire has got nothing to do with it. When it knows the envelope data is erroneous it downgrades its protection.


Anyway it will take the black boxes to confirm what happened. Anything before that is pure speculation. MORE

Shannon Jacobs is a former pilot (or claims to be) :

I tend to favor machines over humans. As Einstein noted, there are no limits to human stupidity, but you can design any degree of redundancy you want into mechanical systems. The simple question is cost versus probabilistic safety.


As regards the storm, I actually came close to getting killed when something like that caught me off guard. MORE

And Suzuran drives the point home:

There is a manual override. The crew can force a reversion to direct law. This has never been done because it's never been necessary. You and the press do not understand how the Airbus works. There are multiple levels of fail-over down to full manual reversion available, and the system degrades automatically. You don't have to turn around and force the computer to direct law because when the **** hits the fan the computer figures it out faster than the pixels change on the displays and degrades out for you. But hey, I only have experience with the aircraft and lots of documentation - Don't let the facts contradict someone's political agenda!

Airbus autoflight is not the demon that Boeing and the press would like you to believe. MORE

Your humble blogwatcher's thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the passengers and crew. There, but for the grace of God, go we.

This story, "Bloggers Blame Crash on Airbus A330 Computer" was originally published by Computerworld.

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