Rio-Paris airbus crash 'might have been prevented' if pilots had been briefed on previous incident


John Lichfield
Tuesday 17 July 2012 19:29

A French investigating judge is examining evidence that the Rio-Paris airbus crash might have been prevented if the pilots had been briefed on a terrifying incident the previous year.

According to an online update ( to a book on the crash, which will appear in print shortly, Air France and Airbus failed to notify pilots about a crisis aboard a Paris to Madagascar flight on 16 August 2008 that bore striking resemblances to the chain of calamities which befell flight AF447 over the south Atlantic nine months later.

An American writer and aviation expert, Roger Rapoport, says the events aboard the Air France Madagascar flight – and the successful action taken by its pilot to prevent a crash – are now central to the Rio-Paris manslaughter investigation which is being conducted by a French judge, Sylvie Zimmerman.

Mr Rapoport says an independent study by aviation experts sent to the judge last week took a much tougher line on the possible criminal responsibilities of Airbus and Air France than the inconclusive final report of the  French air accident investigation bureau, the BEA, the previous week. His book reveals that the experts’ criticism is based partly on events aboard an Airbus 340, AF flight 373, from Paris to Tananarive in Madagascar in August 2008.

The pilot of the Madgasacar flight lost reliable indication of his airspeed because the recorders, or pitot tubes, had iced up. Amid heavy turbulence he descended to 4,000 feet, turning off the instructions from the aircraft’s computerised guidance system or ‘flight director’.

Much the same circumstances led to the crash of AF 447 in the south Atlantic on 1 June 2009, which killed 228 passengers and crew. In that case, however, the crew lifted the plane’s nose and made a series of other calamitous misjudgements which led the aircraft to plunge into the ocean.

The BEA report suggested the crash was caused by a mixture of systems’ failure and pilot error. It did suggest, however, that the pilots may have been led into error by the computerised fight director.

Air France and Airbus were placed under formal investigation for manslaughter in March last year. Judge Zimmermann must decide whether to recommend that criminal charges should be brought against either company or both.

Mr Rapoport quotes a veteran French aviation expert as saying: “If Air France and Airbus had done the right thing and notified Airbus pilots about the specifics of this near disaster on the Madagascar bound flight, new emergency procedures and better training certainly could have saved the lives of 228 passengers and crew…”

Jacques Rocca, a spokesman for Airbus, contacted by The Independent today, dismissed these conclusions as “false… just plain wrong.”

He added: “To suggest that we failed to warn airlines or pilots that flight directors are unreliable when the pitot tubes fail is absurd. All pilots know this already.”

Mr Rapoport told the Independent:  “The BEA report makes it clear that that 'the absence of any (pilot) training at high altitude in manual aeroplane handing’ and the failure of ‘feedback mechanisms’ made it impossible to apply the correct recovery procedures. The Madagascar flight was a case-book example of how pilots should react but the details were not circulated.”

A French lawyer who represents families of victims of the crash, Maitre Stephane Busy, confirmed to The Independent today that the Madagascar incident formed part of the judicial inquiry. He said: “The problem is that putting the ‘flight director’ on ‘off’ is recommended but… there is no reminder on the instruments panel. Air France and Airbus knew that this could be a problem but they allowed their aircraft to continue to fly.”

Cedric Leurquin, an Air France spokesman, said the Madagascar flight incident has been “normally analysed” and “concerned stakeholders were informed”. He added: “For the rest… Air France…adheres faithfully to the BEA's analyses published on July 5.”

Mr Rapoport’s book is an updated English language version of a book published in French last year. It went online last night and will appear in a print version shortly as “The Rio-Paris Crash; Air France 447”.

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