Simon Calder: Airbus stands by its 'fly-by-wire'. But how safe is it?

Wednesday 10 June 2009 00:00 BST

The language of the crash report is terse. The Boeing 777 "bounced, before commencing a ground slide". It was "damaged beyond economic repair", yet the injuries to its passengers amounted only to "one (serious)" and "eight (minor)"; four crew were also slightly hurt.

This Air Accident Investigation Branch interim report describes the remarkable story of a British Airways jet at the end of a 5,000-mile flight from Beijing to Heathrow in January last year. Two miles from the start of runway 27L, and at a height of 600 feet, the fuel supply to both engines dried up. "I could hear the undercarriage come out, and the next moment the plane just dropped," said one passenger on BA38. Captain Peter Burkill paid tribute to his co-pilot, Senior First Officer John Coward, who "did the most remarkable job" in landing the crippled aircraft.

The loss of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic involved the closest Airbus equivalent to the Boeing 777: the Airbus A330. As fragments of information about the possible fate of that jet have come to light, aviation insiders have been increasingly focused on the contrasting design philosophies at Airbus and Boeing.

Airbus has long been wedded to "fly-by-wire" technology. The manufacturer encapsulates the concept as one "in which the deflections of the flying control surfaces on the wing and tail are no longer driven directly by the pilots' controls, but by a computer which calculates exactly which control surface deflections are needed to make the aircraft respond as the pilot wishes".

"Plenty of pilots feel that Airbus's 'fly-by-wire' systems are overly sophisticated," said a senior former executive for a leading UK airline. "They can put the pilot in conflict with the aircraft systems. Boeings might be more rudimentary, but they are robust."

There has also been concern about an incident last October, in which a Qantas A330 rapidly descended for no apparent reason. "They have a mind of their own," said a pilot familiar with the aircraft. "Who is in charge – the pilot or the software?"

Airbus maintains its fly-by-wire technology has led to "improved flight safety, reduced pilot workload and the reduction of mechanical parts".

Indeed, an A330 was the aircraft involved in one of aviation's most remarkable survival stories, when an Air Transat jet glided in to the Azores after a fuel leak that shut down both engines in mid-Atlantic.

Which system is safer: Airbus's reliance on world-leading technology, or Boeing's philosophy of allowing a greater degree of human intervention? Statistically, it is impossible to say. Personally, I trust in the immense intellectual and financial investment that both giant aircraft makers have made in that most precious of commodities: the preservation of human life.

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