Episode 81: Air France Flight 296Q

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On June 26, 1988, Air France 296Q crashed into a forest while conducting a demonstration flight during the Habsheim Air Show. In episode 81 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, join Shelly as we explore the controversial accident investigation that sought to explain how a highly automated, brand-new Airbus A320 crashed during a risky flyover maneuver.

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On June 26, 1988, Air France 296Q crashed into a forest while conducting a demonstration flight at the Habsheim Air Show. Three of the 136 people onboard died following the crash. In episode 81 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we explore how the investigation placed blame on the pilot, Captain Michel Asseline, for flying the plane too low and too slowly during the flyover, which prevented the engines from reaching full power before colliding with the forest. However, Captain Asseline maintains to this day that the plane – a highly automated, brand-new Airbus A320 – failed to follow his commands during the flyover, which he says is the main contributor to the crash. Ultimately, the captain, his copilot, and three others were found guilty of manslaughter related to the deadly crash. Despite the BEA findings and the court proceedings, controversy continues to exist as to whether the pilot or the plane is fully to blame. 

Air France Flight 296Q Plane Emblematic of New Era of Aircraft Automation

Air France Flight 296Q is a special, chartered flight of a brand-new Airbus A320-111 operated by Air France for Air Charter. In fact, the aircraft is so new, it is the third one of its kind to be delivered to Air France. We will begin our story today by talking about the plane, which we have mentioned before in other episodes, including episode 3, when we covered Air France 447.

The Airbus A320’s onboard fly by wire system is the centerpiece of the new Airbus design, which at the time, truly altered the relationship between the pilot and the plane. Essentially, in the A320, the pilot flies an automated computer, and the computer flies the plane. 

The reason for this type of design is so the computer can override pilot input to save the aircraft. The principle behind these built-in protections was that as long as the controls were working properly, it would be impossible for the pilots to lose control of the plane, no matter how hard they tried. This built-in protection became known in the industry as the so-called "Airbus Philosophy," a design that would override many pilot inputs to prevent accidents. The passive implication of this design was that most air accidents were caused by pilot error, and in even some extreme cases, pilot sabotage. And, as we recall in episode 3, Air France 447, it also sometimes fostered a false sense of invincibility in the plane, too. 

The “Airbus Philosophy” emerged in direct contrast with the current “Boeing Philosophy," which was a design framework where the plane alerted the pilot when something was amiss, but the plane would always defer to the pilot. As we can imagine, the new Airbus technology was also met with some resistance from pilots and pilot advocacy groups, who felt pilots should always have as much direct control over an aircraft as possible. All of this is unfolding as we begin our story.

Two Talented Air France Captains Chosen to Pilot AF 296Q During Air Show

Flying the plane that is Air France 296Q on this day in June 1988 are two exceptional pilots. Captain Michel Asseline, 44, had been a pilot with Air France for almost twenty years and was a highly distinguished pilot with 10,463 flight hours. A training captain since 1979, Asseline was appointed to head the company's A320 training subdivision at the end of 1987. As Air France's technical pilot, he had been heavily involved in test flying the A320 type and had carried out maneuvers beyond normal operational limitations. 

Captain Asseline had also been the pilot to fly this particular aircraft off Airbus’s assembly line for the airline. As we can probably imagine, the captain was somewhat of a superstar at Air France and had been specifically chosen to fly this flight, which is a demonstration flight during a local air show. As part of his role for Air France, the Captain was to go around making speeches about the A320 to fellow pilots and promote the aircraft’s capabilities. His face and voice had even made its way into the press when speaking about the new planes. 

Joining Captain Asseline in the cockpit is Captain Pierre Mazières, 45, also a senior Air France pilot, who had been flying with the airline since 1969 and had been a training captain for six years. He also had experience on several Boeing models and had qualified as an A320 captain three months before. Captain Mazières had 10,853 hours of flight time. And as this is a demonstration flight, joining the two captains in the cockpit are two off duty flight attendants. 

Today, as part of their demonstration in the Habsheim Air Show, the crew will conduct a low flyover at the Mulhouse–Habsheim Airport. The low-speed flyover, with landing gear down, will take place at an altitude of just 100 feet (30 m) above ground. 

Even though this is a demonstration flight, there are a lot of people total onboard the plane, including the crew, for the air show demonstration, which is an unusually large amount of people for this type of flight. But local businesses had run contests that allowed people to win a ticket on the flight. The passengers included journalists, first-time flyers, and several unaccompanied children, one of whom was quadriplegic. These special passengers were assisted by four flight attendants, bringing the total number of occupants to 136. 

Following the fly over, everyone onboard will get to remain on the plane and partake in a sightseeing tour of Mont Blanc, which also happens to be the highest peak in western Europe. 

Captain Asseline Plans Bold Flyover Maneuver for Habsheim Air Show

To complete the flyover, Captain Asseline is planning a low altitude, nose-high fly-by at alpha max over the airport’s only paved runway – (this is a new term for us on the podcast) alpha max is the slowest a plane can fly without stalling. It’s right at the edges of those built-in flight protections. 

The flight route that Captain Asseline came up with is this: they would takeoff and fly north from Basel-Mulhouse Airport to 1,000 feet altitude until spotting the Mulhouse-Habsheim Airport, where the airshow was being held, at which point they would descend in line with runway 02, which is the airport’s only paved runway. At that point, the plane would descend to a height of just 100 feet with the flaps in position 3 and the landing gear down. 

Hearing the plan for this bold maneuver, Captain Mazières expresses a shadow of doubt about the approach, about which Captain Asseline was quick to reassure him: after all, Asseline asserted, he had done this “20 times” and it had never caused any problems. So, this becomes the plan for the flyover. 

And just like that, Air France 296 is rolling down the runway, and then accelerating into the sky for the short, 5-minute trip to Hambsheim Airport, where, already nearly 5,000 people are eagerly awaiting the fly over from the new Airbus aircraft.

Air France Flight 296Q Pilots Have Trouble Locating the Airport 

And as you can imagine, as with most air shows, this show is taking place at an airport that is much smaller than the usual airports that handle A320s. In fact, Habsheim is so small that the airport’s coordinates are not in the Air France onboard navigation system. But that’s OK because both Captain Asseline and First Officer Mazières are prepared to find it by sight. 

Mazières, who is helping the Captain locate the airfield, tells him that they are at 8 miles (or 12.9 kilometers) away from the airport, and that soon he (the Captain) should be able to see the airport. Mazières points toward the highway. A motorway runs past the airport, and they intend to follow it to Habsheim.

But along the way there is a moment of confusion between the pilots. Captain Asseline says, “We’ll leave the motorway to the left, won’t we… it’s to the lef… no, to the right of the motorway.” Captain Mazières clarifies, “It’s slightly to the right of the motorway, so you… you leave the motorway on the left.” Because of this quick moment of confusion, the pilots spot the airport later than when they had intended to, which means that they will need to quickly enter the descent to get ready for the flyover. 

At this point Flight 296’s position is only about one minute out from the runway, so Asseline pulls the throttles back to idle and puts the plane into a quick descent. Hurrying to get ready, Mazières sets flaps to position 3, lowers the landing gear, and enters the local barometric pressure reading.

AF 296Q Descends Quickly into Flyover at Habsheim Air Show

Now descending at 600 feet (or 182 m) per minute, flight 296 lines up with the runway. As is expected, the system alerts the pilots that they are too close to the ground as the ground proximity warning system (or GPWS) blares, “TOO LOW, TERRAIN”.  A second warning, this time coming from the altimeter, calls out the altitude, “Two hundred feet.”

And just like that, they are 100 feet above the ground. They are now at their planned altitude, and this is the most difficult part of the maneuver: Captain Asseline must keep the plane in a stable position with the nose up but not too high. He asks for the auto throttle to be disconnected because this is an automated safety feature that if left on, would speed up the slow-moving plane.  With the engines still at idle, Captain Asseline pulls the side stick back, rapidly slowing the plane as the angle of attack rises toward alpha max. The airspeed drops below 120 knots (or 138 mph).

But it is soon evident to many people on the plane, especially to those who had flown before, that the grass outside the window is much closer than it should be for a flyover. People can tell that the plane is too low. 

Suddenly, Asseline and Mazières realize that there is a forest directly beyond the end of the runway – and they are headed straight for it. Asseline selects the highest thrust setting and pulls back on the controls, and Mazières calls out, “Go around track!”

AF 296Q Collides with Forest Surrounding Mulhouse-Habsheim Airport

But the plane does not pull up. In fact, it keeps dropping. If you have watched the video of this crash before, you will remember how surreal the plane looked. It appears to be in a calm, controlled glide heading straight into the forest. Like it was supposed to be heading there, but of course, it was not. 

From the spectator view at the airport, people would have watched helplessly as the plane seemed to glide directly into the forest, disappearing into the foliage. Then moments later, a massive explosion of smoke and fire erupts from behind the edge of the forest line, streaming up into the sky as a thick, black plume. On board the plane, at first, to many passengers, the impact with the forest felt like a hard landing, but it quickly became worse. Outside the windows, tree trunks and branches tear and scrape at the fuselage; both engines swallow leaves and branches and quickly become overwhelmed and fail. 

As the plane makes contacts with the ground, the right wing tears off, and as it does, fuel spirts outward. As the plane comes to a halting stop just a few meters later, it quickly catches fire.  During the crash sequence, many passengers are thrown against the seats in front of them on impact, resulting in widespread head injuries; there are broken bones, lacerations, and bruising — but amazingly, the injuries aren’t serious. At this point, all 136 passengers and crew have survived the initial crash.

Air France 296Q Crash Evacuation Made Difficult by Fire, Limited Exits

Although everyone is alive, they need to get out of the plane before it becomes completely engulfed by fire. Within seconds, fire and smoke pours into the cabin through breaks in the fuselage. Captain Asseline attempts to call for an evacuation, but the intercom system is dead. In the cabin, flight attendants and passengers rush for the doors, only to find that six of the plane’s eight exits are totally unusable: all the exits on the right side and the two overwing exits on the left are blocked by flames. 

To make matters worse, the flight attendants find that the left front door is blocked by tree branches and cannot open all the way, causing the slide to deploy partially inside the plane. A passenger and a flight attendant manage to push hard enough on the door to free the slide, which sprang outward with such force that both men were thrown out of the plane.

In the rear of the cabin, which had become separated from the front by a wall of fire, the passengers were in capable hands: the flight attendant seated here had conducted an emergency evacuation before, after an Air France 747 caught fire during an aborted takeoff in Mumbai in 1975. Guided by him, passengers calmly evacuated the plane. 

It was a very different story at the front of the plane. Here, passengers are panicked, shoving past each other and clamoring to get outside the burning plane. Within just a few minutes, the last passengers are able to escape the plane. The flight attendants attempt to call back into the smoke-filled cabin, but there is no answer. 

In the cockpit, Captain Asseline picks up Captain Mazières, who has been badly injured in the crash, and drags him right out the door. Captain Asseline attempts to go back into the plane to check one last time for any remaining survivors, but he is quickly unable to do so as thick, black smoke billows out from all directions in the fuselage.

Three People, Including Two Children, Perish in Air France Flight 296Q Crash

At first, it seems as though everyone has gotten out alive. It wasn’t until hours later, after accounting for all the survivors, that three people are found to be missing. Amidst the panic of wanting to leave the plane before they burned alive, no one had remembered to assist the quadriplegic boy in seat 4F. A little further back, a seven-year-old girl had also become trapped in her seat, unable to undo her seat belt after a seat back collapsed on top of her. Her younger brother tried to free her, but he was carried away by the panicked crowd.  The final victim was a woman who left her husband before evacuating the plane and returned to the cabin to save the little girl, only to be overcome by the smoke. According to the final report, all three victims died from inhaling toxic gases well before the airplane burned over.

Obviously, not the most important fact, but a significant fact, nonetheless, was that in addition to the loss of life, this crash is a public relations disaster for Airbus. Remember, this entire flight was supposed to have been to highlight the Airbus’s capabilities. And there is irony in these events as Airbus has touted the A320 as a new era in airplane safety, and yet, a brand new one has just crashed right in front of the eyes of thousands.

French BEA Arrives at Air France Flight 296Q Crash Site to Investigate Cause

Within hours of the crash, members from France’s Bureau of Inquiry and Analysis (BEA) are onsite to begin its investigation. Fortunately, investigators have access to two types of evidence immediately: because the fuselage is mostly intact, investigators immediately locate the two black boxes, and secondly, they also have access to the video footage of the actual crash. Right away, the question that needs to be answered is, was the crash caused by the pilot or the plane.

Leading the investigation is Claude Bechet, who is a lead investigator for the BEA as well as a commercial captain for Air France. 

When investigators watch the video footage, it appears that the plane is heading straight for the trees and does not appear to be climbing at all. And, when they listen to the cockpit voice recorder, there does not seem to be any mention of the forest by either captain as an obstacle that is coming right for them. It was like the forest took them by surprise, but how?

Investigators interview Captain Asseline, who explains to the team what his plan was for the flyover, and Bechet feels like Captain Asseline’s plan for the flyover was thoughtful and well-organized. Bechet also feels that the captain is very cooperative and willing to speak to investigators about what happened, which is appreciated. 

AF 296Q Investigation Uncovers Pilots Rushed to Prepare for Flyover

One factor investigators want to understand is, how did the airline guide pilots when it came to air show demonstrations? They find an Air France memo that outlines the rules pilots should follow for all air show flights. One thing that stands out is, the minimum altitude for a flyover is set at 100 feet (30 m). But this rule actually violates national regulations at the time for flyovers, which said a plane could not go below 500 feet (or 152 m). 

In addition to this issue, investigators find that Air France did not draw up a flight plan for the demo flight, which included maps of the airfield, until just 48 hours before the flight. On those maps, investigators find a significant error: the forest around the airfield does not show up on the photocopy maps. The person who drew up the flight plan and maps for Air France did not have a chance to discuss it with either pilot before the flight, nor did the pilots themselves have a lot of time to prepare for the demo flight. These are not things that usually happen when a pilot is preparing for an air show. Basically, Air France had left it in the hands of Captain Asseline to decide exactly what the plan would be and how to go about it, without the usual pre-flight briefings. Captain Asseline himself did not think of the flight as unusual or exceptional. To him, he had done this before and would be doing it again on this flight.

Investigation Finds that Air France 296Q Plane Deviated from Flight Plan Below 100 Feet

Investigators continue their inquiry by measuring the height of the trees in the forest where Flight 296 impacted, and they find that the tallest trees were only around 40 feet (or 12 m) tall. So how did the plane, which was supposed to be flying over at 100 feet hit trees that were less than half that height tall? The only way that could have happened is if Flight 296 deviated from its flight plan and lost altitude before impacting the trees. 

The team compares this evidence to that of the data recorded by the flight data recorder (or FDR). First, investigators can rule out any type of mechanical breakdown or failures of the plane, its parts, or its flight control systems. Second, it becomes obvious that the plane followed a different flight path than the one outlined by Captain Asseline. Instead of maintaining a stable position during the flyover, the plane had lost altitude incrementally as the plane conducted the flyover. The plane’s slowest speed at the flyover was just 112 knots (or 129 mph), which is about the minimum speed to keep the plane in air.

When Captain Asseline is questioned further, he reveals that the fight crew had a little trouble locating the airfield. But this confusion spent precious moments they did not have, and as soon as they spotted the airfield, they reduced power to the aircraft and essentially began to rush their descent to get into position for the flyover. 

There was another problem that emerged around this time in the flight. Captain Asseline noticed that the spectators weren’t lined up along runway 02 (where they were supposed to flyover) but that they were all standing next to runway 34R, a much shorter, grass runway that intersected runway 02 at a 40-degree angle. So, at the last minute, he turned slightly to the left to line up with runway 34R, sweeping in over the forest surrounding the airport. And remember, the maps used by the flight crew did not indicate that at the end of THIS runway was a forest. By the time Flight 296 got to the airfield, it was flying too fast. To lose speed, Captain Asseline kept the thrust on its lowest power setting, well below the setting most pilots use when flying at alpha max. In addition to all these things converging at once, the plane was also falling below its 100 feet minimum altitude, and the flight crew did not seem to notice that the altitude had fallen to just 30 feet (9 m). 

AF 296Q Captain Maintains that Plane’s Instruments Were Faulty

When confronted with this data, Captain Asseline tells investigators he is absolutely certain that he was at 100 feet, not 30 feet, and that his instruments must have failed him. He was relying on the barometric altimeter, which uses air pressure to measure the plane’s distance from the ground. This had to be set to local atmospheric pressure to work properly and accurately, and the CVR confirms that the control tower gave the pilots the proper setting and that the pilots entered this into the barometric altimeter system. 

Captain Asseline insists that the altimeter showed him 100 feet and must have been faulty when doing so. And he also says that the second altitude reading on the plane’s digital display, which uses radio waves to measure altitude, was difficult to read. Many pilots in the industry say that this would have been the case. Lastly, Asseline says that he could not hear the radio altimeter’s voice callouts of altitude either – he said the voice callouts were not coming through the headsets. 

The investigative team feels skeptical about the facts surrounding the altimeter readings. Nonetheless, they also want to know what the Captain did once he and his co-pilot saw the trees. Captain Asseline says he applied max power but that the engines did not respond until it was too late – they had already impacted with the forest. 

And this is basically the beginning of a campaign led by Captain Asseline to prove that he was not at fault for the crash. He begins to look into information on the A320 himself and finds an issue with the A320’s turbo jet engines. In a document from Airbus, it warns of a defect with the engines wherein the engines could stagnate at low altitudes, a condition caused by poor airflow, and when and if this occurs, the engine cannot accelerate. The challenge with this assertion is that investigators can find no failure with the plane according to its flight data. 

Investigation Finds Captain Flew Too Low, Too Slowly for Engines to Reach Max Thrust Before Colliding with Trees

But despite Asseline’s allegations, the FDR data, a spectral analysis of the engine sounds on the CVR, and a similar analysis of the spectator video all agreed that Asseline accelerated the engines between 5 and 5.4 seconds prior to impact with the trees, by which point the engines had accelerated to 84% power, close to full power, just before they hit the trees. This was exactly how the engines were supposed to perform. 

An analysis of the airplane’s overall performance explained why 84% power in the engines was insufficient to prevent the crash. Because the pilots spotted the airport so late, they had to pull back the engines to idle in order descend quickly enough to reach the planned flyover height. With no height to lose and little thrust from the engines, the plane had neither the potential energy nor the kinetic energy needed to climb. The plane only reached full thrust when it was already in the forest.

New Airbus Plane Went Nose Down to Prevent Air France Flight 296Q from Stalling, Not to Intentionally Disregard Captain’s Commands to Climb

But there is another issue that perplexes investigators and supports Asseline’s assertions that the plane did not follow his commands. According to the FDR, during the final few seconds of the flight, Captain Asseline was pulling back on the control stick as hard as he could to climb, but the flight surfaces of the plane were moving into a position to put the nose down. 

Investigators wonder, given the way that the plane was configured during the flyover (gear down, altitude of 30 feet, flaps extended), did the plane enter automatically into landing mode and initiate the steps to accomplish that, thereby cancelling out the Captain’s inputs to climb? Did the plane override its pilot at a critical moment? The FDR is unable to confirm if the plane went into landing mode. Basically, there are simply too many functions on this advanced aircraft for the flight data recorder to track. 

Lead investigator Bechet flies in an A320 and recreates the exact parameters of Fight 296. They find that this set of factors does in fact put the plane into a nose down response. But the reason for the nose down response is not what you think: it is NOT because the plane went into landing mode. Instead, because of the low speed and low airflow over the wings, the plane actually went into a stall prevention mode. And to prevent a stall, the nose needs to be put down. 

Investigators agree that the plane did disregard Captain Asseline’s commands to climb, but because it was preventing a stall, which would have meant that without that protection, the plane would have crashed even before it impacted with the trees.  

The BEA Maintains Pilot Error – and not the Plane – Caused Air France 296Q Crash

Ultimately, the BEA found that pilot error was the cause of the crash. The official report from BEA concluded that the probable cause of the accident was a combination of the plane being too low and too slow and max thrust was only applied once it was too late. 

The report further recommended that passengers should be banned from all demonstration flights; flight crews should be provided with – and ensure – proper reconnaissance of airfields; and airline company procedures should be reviewed to ensure they comply with official regulations concerning altitude.

There is a very unfortunate legacy with Flight 296. In 1997, Captain Asseline, Captain Mazières, two Air France officials and the president of the flying club sponsoring the air show were all charged with involuntary manslaughter. All five were found guilty. Asseline was initially sentenced to six months in prison along with twelve months of probation. Mazières was given a twelve-month suspended sentence. The others were sentenced to probation. In 1998, after Asseline's appeal was rejected, his sentence was increased to ten months of imprisonment along with ten months of probation.

Despite BEA Probable Cause, AF 296Q Legacy Remains Controversial 

But the lasting legacy of this crash is perhaps some of the controversy that has arisen since the final report was released. The television documentary series Mayday reports claims in Season 9 Episode 3 that the plane's flight recorder might have been tampered with and indicates that as many as four seconds may have been cut from the tape. It was also claimed by the Institute of Police Forensic Evidence and Criminology, based in Switzerland, that the flight data recorders may have been switched and were not the original ones in the airplane. Airbus made a detailed rebuttal of these claims in a document published in 1991, contending that the independent investigator employed by the filmmakers made an error when synchronizing the recordings based on a misunderstanding of how the flight data recorder functioned. However, the conjecture persists to this day that Airbus had too much riding on A320 orders to allow this crash to be anything but 100% the pilots’ faults. 

To this day, Captain Michel Asseline continues to proclaim his innocence and has given many television interviews about his perspective. The BEA maintains their findings of the original investigation.

And THAT is the complicated story of the crash of Air France Flight 296Q.

Show Notes:

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Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered at: Snow Monster Studios
Sound editor: Podcast Engineers
Producer: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
Air France Flight 296Q

Crash site of Air France Flight 296Q. Source: Aviationaccidents.net

Air France Flight 296Q

Crash site of Air France Flight 296Q. Source: Aviationaccidents.net

Air France Flight 296Q

The swath of forest cut down by Air France Flight 296Q as it crashed into the forest. Source: Aviationaccidents.net