Episode 3: Air France Flight 447

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Summary:

In this episode of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, Shelly tells the frightening and harrowing story of Air France Flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean in May 2009. It was two years before investigators recovered the plane from the ocean.



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What Made Air France Flight 447 Crash into the Sea in 2009?

In the early morning hours of June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 (AF447) disappeared from radar somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil. A shocking two years go by before the wreckage is brought to the surface, and we learn why AF447 crashed into the sea. The story of Air France Flight 447 reveals how weather, frozen pitot tubes, poor pilot training, and the unwavering belief in an automated cockpit set in motion one of the most devastating and unnecessary plane crashes in recent aviation history. 

Air France Flight 447 Takes Off on May 30, 2009 Headed for Paris

On May 30, 2009, Air France Flight 447 takes off for Paris from Rio De Janeiro at 7:30 PM (or 22:30 coordinated universal time). The airplane is an Airbus A330, which features an automated cockpit and, very importantly, a computer-based fly-by-wire control system that keeps the ride smooth. This system can also, at the extremes, keep pilots from exceeding aerodynamic and structural limits of the plane. Over the 15 years since the introduction of the A330 in 1994, not one in the line of service has crashed (this is also significant). At the time of this flight in 2009, the A330 is a state of the art flying machine with a spotless record. 

Flight 447 is carrying 228 people: 216 passengers, three aircrew and nine cabin crew in two cabins of service. Among the 216 passengers are 126 men, 82 women, and eight children (including one infant).

Because the Rio-Paris route exceeds the 10 hours permitted before a pilot must take a break dictated by Air France's procedures, Flight 447 is crewed by three pilots: a captain and two first officers. With three pilots on board, each can take a break in the A330's rest cabin which is situated behind the cockpit.

Air France Flight 447 Goes Missing on June 1, 2009

A little over four hours into their journey, Flight 447 vanishes from radar. What is most puzzling is that there is no warning, no distress call from the plane. When the crew fails to contact air traffic control at either Senegal or Cape Verde, the controller in Senegal attempts to contact the aircraft. When he receives no response, he asks the crew of another Air France flight to try to contact 447; but this also is met without success.

The Two-Year Search for Air France Flight 447

After further attempts to contact Flight 447 are unsuccessful, an aerial search for the missing Airbus commences from both sides of the Atlantic. 

By the early afternoon on June 1st (the same day as the disappearance from radar), officials with Air France and the French government have already presumed the aircraft is lost with no survivors. It takes a shocked Air France 6 hours to finally concede to the terrible reality: the plane is lost.

On June 2nd, a Brazilian Air Force aircraft spots wreckage and possible signs of jet fuel along a 3-mile band near the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago. They sight an aircraft seat, an orange buoy, a barrel, and "white pieces and electrical conductors".  Three days later, search vessels reach the area where the plane disappeared from radar. They spot wreckage and are astonished by what they see: the wreckage is compressed vertically, which means the plane must have hit the sea surface at a very high rate of descent with its nose high. This is a very extraordinary an unusual position. Normally a plane diving into the water is expected to hit the surface nose down. So, this is obviously very baffling. Investigators immediately wonder, was this a crash or an ocean ditching gone wrong?

Early on June 6th, five days after Flight 447 disappeared, searchers encounter further evidence that will confirm the fate of the flight: they spot two male bodies, which are the first to be recovered from the crashed aircraft, and a leather briefcase containing a boarding pass for the flight. 

At this point, and with this evidence, investigators confirm the plane has crashed, killing everyone on board. And to make things worse, there are no signs yet of the black boxes or fuselage. 

One factor immediately stands out to investigators – the weather. Flight 447 flew through a zone known as the intertropical convergence zone, or ITC zone, which is known for its strong storms. But on that night in 2009, twelve other planes flew through the same system as flight 447 with no concerns. Investigators rule that turbulence and the storms are not enough to have brought down the plane.  

Without data from the plane or the cockpit voice recorder (or CVR), all they can do is keep searching for more of the wreckage, which they do. Three more intense searches commence, but the plane is not found.

Air France Flight 447 Wreckage Found Two Years Later in 2011

Finally, almost two years after the flight disappeared from radar, the wreckage is discovered.  

On April 3rd, 2011, a team led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discover a large portion of the debris field from flight 447 on the sea floor at a depth of over 13,000 feet. They also find bodies of passengers and crew still strapped into their seats. The debris is very compact and suggests the aircraft hit the water largely intact. 

Finally, on April 26th searchers find the flight data recorder, and then on May 2nd, they find the CVR. Both are then sent to Paris for examination. 

Between May 5th and June 3rd of 2011, 104 bodies are recovered from the wreckage, bringing the total number of bodies found to 154. The search ends with a remaining 74 bodies still unrecovered to this day. As the mother of one the deceased flight attendants said, not having the body was like having another death.

Investigators analyze the data from the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. And this is the moment that represents the most significant breakthrough in the investigation. It also reveals a terrifying sequence of events onboard flight 447.

What Made Air France Flight 447 Crash into the Sea

Just to review who the key players are, onboard we have three pilots.

The captain, 58-year-old Marc Dubois joined Air France in 1988 and has almost 11,000 flying hours, including 1,700 hours on the A330. The first officer, 37-year-old David Robert, joined Air France in 1998 and has over 6,500 flying hours, of which almost 4,500 are on the A330. The other first officer is 32-year-old Pierre-Cédric Bonin, and he joined Air France in 2003 and has almost 3,000 flight hours, of which just 807 are on the A330. His wife is also on flight 447. 

When the flight takes off, Captain Dubois and First Officer Bonin are at the controls. The plane is cruising along at 35,000 feet, and all is well and calm. 

At around 2 AM, Dubois, who again is the senior Captain, decides to get some sleep, and Robert, the senior co-pilot, sits on the left, serving as the non-flying pilot. Bonin continues to handle flying from the right seat. 

Pitot Tubes Freeze Over on Air France Flight 447 Midflight

Here then comes the game changer: at 2:10 AM, the flight encounters heavier weather, and the cockpit fills with the incredibly loud sound of precipitation hitting the windshield. Unbeknownst to the pilots, ice crystals have begun to accumulate inside the airplane’s three air-pressure probes, known as pitot tubes, which measure air speed and are mounted on the underside of the plane’s nose. 

Because of the ice crystal accumulation, the pitot tubes freeze over. When that happens, the airspeed indicators say the plane is going much slower than it is. This causes the next event: the fly-by-wire control system, which depends on accurate airspeed data to function, shuts off. So now, the A330 handles like a conventional airplane and is under the manual control of the pilots. Which should not have been an issue – more of an inconvenience than any type of danger. 

Apparently, when an airplane is not on autopilot and there is turbulence, it becomes more sensitive to rolling. Without the autopilot, the aircraft starts to roll to the right due to turbulence from storms in the area, and Bonin reacts by deflecting his sidestick to the left. But Bonin overcorrects by pulling too hard back on his stick. During the next 30 seconds, the aircraft rolls alternately left and right as Bonin struggles to level the plane. 

Bonin pulls his control stick far back, three-fourths of the way to the stop, and then he keeps on pulling. This puts the nose way up and puts the airplane into a steep, unsustainable climb, causing its airspeed to drop. By the standard of most pilots, these moves on the part of Bonin are baffling.  

Robert notices that they are climbing, so he tells Bonin to descend. Bonin responds by saying, “Here we go, we’re descending.” But he’s still pulling back on the stick, more gently this time, but pulling back, nonetheless. This raises the nose of the plane and puts it into a shallow climb while the speed increases. 

At this point, all Bonin had to do was to lower the nose to a normal cruising pitch—about to the horizon—and leave the thrust alone. The airplane would have returned to cruising flight at the same speed as before. But Bonin continues to pull back on the stick. And this causes the nose to pitch even higher. 

They are soaring past the 36,000 feet max for the plane at a rate of 7,000 feet per minute and heading up to 38,000 feet. The aircraft's stall warning sounds and the aircraft's recorded airspeed drops even more sharply from 315 mph to a little over 100 mph. And then the plane begins to fall.

The pilots are confused at the stall warnings and the air speed data. But there should have not been any confusion. The plane is telling the pilots exactly what is happening, they just don’t seem to believe it. All they needed to do is push the nose down to gain more speed and recover from the stall. 

But they are in an Airbus A330 – and with its impeccable record and automated systems, a stall was never supposed to happen. 

Chaos Inside the Air France Flight 447 Cockpit Leads to Pilot Errors

Sheer chaos beings to erupt inside the cockpit of AF447. Senior co-pilot Robert shouts out commands to Bonin, telling him to watch his speed and to descend. Then Robert tells Bonin, “We’re climbing, according to this! So, you go back down!” Investigators now take this statement to mean Robert wanted Bonin to put the nose down. 

Bonin gets the nose down to a six-degree pitch, and the climb has stopped. But the plane is still falling. Bonin still needs to lower the nose even more to stop the stall. But for some reason Bonin does not do this, and Robert seems to run out of ideas. Instead, Robert is trying to rouse Captain Dubois by repeatedly pushing the call button to his rest compartment, behind the cockpit. 

Bonin begins to pull back on the stick again (and remember, pulling the stick back causes the nose to pitch up for a climb), and this raises the nose 13 degrees above the horizon. The angle of attack increases, and three seconds later, the airplane begins to shake with the onset of another stall. At this point, because of the intense shuddering from the stall, the instruments inside the cockpit would be hard to read.

It’s important to understand the concept of angle of attack and how this indicator plays into the fate of AF447. The concept is highly technical and very complicated to the lay person, but one that all pilots understand very well. To simplify for the purpose of this story, the angle of attack is basically the difference in the angle the airplane is pitched at versus the angle it is climbing at, which balances the lift and the drag. If the angle of attack increases without first increasing the speed, the plane can stall. 

By now the pitot tubes unfreeze, but the pilots still are not aware of the airspeed – even though the groundspeed radar would have accurately displayed the plane’s airspeed. 

Confused Pilots Onboard Air France Flight 447 Fail to Recognize the Plane Was in a Stall

One minute and 17 seconds have passed since the trouble has started. The descent rate rapidly grows to 3,900 feet per minute, and as a result, the angle of attack further increases. The buffeting grows heavy.  There is clear panic happening inside the cockpit. 

FINALLY, Robert, as the more senior pilot, assumes control of the airplane. But Robert has control for only a second before Bonin, using his OWN priority button, and without saying a word to Robert, takes control BACK. Robert does not figure out what Bonin has done, and so in his panic, Robert believes his sidestick has failed. Robert exclaims, “Fuck, what’s going on?”

Here is what is happening between the two pilots: their actions cancel each other out since the Boeing jetliner side sticks are asynchronous, that is, they move independently. Robert has no idea, despite their conversation that said HE was taking over control, that Bonin has taken control back and continues to pull back on the stick. 

As you may recall, Robert was trying to call the Captain back into the cockpit. It takes 52 seconds for DuBois to come to the cockpit. That is a lifetime in the context of what is happening here.  

Dubois asks them, “Do you understand what’s happening, or not?”

There is little communication from either pilot to the captain about what is actually happening. This is partly because the co-pilots are so panicked that they do not know what is going on. 

As laid out in William Langewiesche’s article for Vanity Fair, the events unfolding in the chaotic cockpit are astonishing. 

Robert did not say to Dubois, “We lost airspeed indications. We’re in Alternate Law. We climbed to 38,000 feet, and now we’re going down.” Instead, he said, “I don’t know what’s happening!”

The Captain Returns to the Cockpit

After Dubois arrives, the stall warning temporarily stops, essentially because the angle of attack is so extreme that the system rejects the data as invalid. It is like the plane said this is not possible. It can’t exist as a possibility. 

The Airbus reaches an altitude of 35,000 feet and their engines are at 100% max. The nose is 15 degrees up. The descent rate is 10,000 feet per minute and increasing. The angle of attack, though not indicated in the cockpit, is an incredible 41 degrees.

The two pilots are yelling out they do not have indicators; they don’t know what’s happening. They are now falling 12,000 feet per minute. 

Dubois is silent for 23 seconds – we have to assume he is trying to figure out the situation. Imagine how confusing it must be to him not having been there from the start to see the sequence of events, beginning with the airspeed input failure when the pitot tubes froze over. But oddly, DuBois does not sit and take control of the plane. 

Robert finally asks DuBois what he thinks, and Dubois basically says, “I don’t know. It’s descending.”

DuBois orders Bonin to level the wings. And Robert is shouting at Bonin, “Your speed! You’re climbing!” Robert probably meant that Bonin was raising the nose, because the airplane was absolutely not climbing – it was falling. Robert said, “Descend!” again apparently referring to pitch, meaning put the nose down.

Bonin said, “I am descending!” It is now that Dubois picks up the language. He said, “No, you’re climbing.” Bonin may have realized that the reference was to pitch (and climbing meant the nose pitches up FOR a climb). He said, “I’m climbing? O.K., so we’re going down.”

They continue to fall. They’re now at 13,000 feet. 

And then it all comes out. Bonin says, “But I’ve had the stick back the whole time!” Again: pulling the stick back causes the nose to pitch up for a climb.

At this point, Dubois seems to realize that Bonin has been causing the stall. He says, “No, no, no don’t climb! No! No!”

Bonin may have realized that the reference Dubois was making was to pitch. Bonin said, “I’m climbing? O.K., so we’re going down.”

At 2:14, Flight 447 slams belly-down into the Atlantic, 4 hours and 15 minutes into the flight, and just 4 minutes and 20 seconds after the first event in a sequence of events that caused the crash. 

Two years later, when the flight-data recorder was retrieved, it showed that by the last moment, the plane was progressing at a mere 123 miles per hour, but with a descent rate of 11,000 feet per minute. 

What Did the Passengers of Air France Flight 447 Experience Onboard?

From an evidentiary perspective, there is little confirmation of what the passengers went through. Some speculate they were blissfully unaware the plane was falling toward the ocean. Most experts agree that passengers likely felt the buffeting of the plane caused by the jerking of the controls as well as the turbulence from the storm.

But others believe the passengers were very aware that something was wrong – just not what was wrong. Tom Farrier, a pilot interviewed for William Langewiesche’s Vanity Fair article said: “At best, [it was] massively confusing and scary; at worst, horrific.  I just can’t sugar-coat it.  My personal sense is that everybody who wasn’t already awake due to the turbulence they passed through previously would have been awakened by noise, vibrations and massive confusion, and almost certainly perceived a deteriorating situation right down to impact.”  

Many experts say the passengers died instantly when they hit the water. And, again, not everyone is in absolute agreement.

Dr. Francisco Sarmento presided over the flight 447 passenger autopsies and said this in his interview with Langewiesche for Vanity Fair: “When they hit,” he said, slamming it down, “fractures. But when the bodies arrived, the lungs were already in a state of decomposition. We didn’t have conditions to see if anyone drowned.”

Langewiesche asks, “So it’s possible that some of them were still alive?” 

Dr. Sarmento responded, “Most died on impact. Some could have survived.”

The Outcomes of the BEA Investigation into Air France Flight 447

French investigators found the crew of Flight 447 mishandled the loss of speed readings from sensors blocked with ice from the storm and pushed it into a stall by holding the nose too high.

In all, the BEA made a total of 25 recommendations covering everything from improved training of pilots, instructors, and inspectors, to better cockpit design as a way to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe. It also called for better tracking of planes during long flights over ocean. It was not until after the disappearance of MH370 in 2014, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, that regulators took firm action. With that disappearance, finally, a decision to require signals from planes every 15 minutes in remote zones came into force in 2018.  

Air France and French unions have defended the pilots, saying they faced conflicting alarms. Following its investigation, and in response to the claim that the pilots faced conflicting alarms, the BEA recommended that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) here in the US should consider making it mandatory to have an angle-of-attack indicator on the instrument panel. But pilots said the indicator might be confusing and would not have necessarily stopped this crash. In 2014, the FAA streamlined requirements for angle of attack indicators for general aviation without affecting requirements for commercial aviation. For now, both the BEA and FAA have backed off from this consideration. 

The crash of flight 447, which sparked a wider debate about the balance of humans and technology, is seen as one of a handful of accidents that singularly changed aviation. Some experts opine that the next Air France 447 is just over the horizon. Many pilots advocate for keeping pilots in the control seat while balancing the need for highly automated aircraft. 

A concern among many pilots is that the more recent generations of pilots depend much more on autopilot and fly less manually than previous generations of pilots, a truth that is viewed negatively by many seasoned pilots. In all, following flight 447 there was a general consensus that pilots needed more training in handling uncommon and unexpected situations that happen inflight. 

Who Were the Passengers and Victims of Air France Flight 447?

228 people died onboard flight 447. That included Alexander Bjoroy, 11, a student at Clifton College in Bristol, was returning to the UK after visiting his family in Brazil for the half-term break. 

Flight 447 also claimed the lives of three Irish doctors. The friends, who were in their 20s, were heading home after a two-week holiday in Brazil. 

One of the 58 Brazilians on board the aircraft was Prince Pedro Luis de Orleans e Braganza, 26, a direct descendant of Dom Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil. 

Lastly, among the victims also was a Swedish family who had a fear of flying. Christine Schnabl was flying with her five-year-old son, Philippe. Christine had purposely travelled on a separate flight from her husband and their three-year-old daughter, due to the couple's shared fear of air crashes. Her husband and their daughter caught an earlier flight and landed safely in Paris, where they were informed that the second plane – which had taken off only a few hours later – was missing. 

A Couple Escapes Death by Missing AF447 Flight that Crashed

And two people who were spared death. A French couple who begged Air France officials to let them fly home on the fateful plane... were turned away because the flight was full. 

And THAT is the heart wrenching story of Air France Flight 447.

Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered by: Crosse deStreit, Salmon Pond Studios
Graphic design and website by: Adam Hubka
Sound editing and music by: Mike Dunn
Air France Flight 447

The plane as seen in 2007. Photo credit: Pawel Kierzowski (Wikipedia)

Wreckage from Air France Flight 447. Photo credit: Agencia Brasil (Wikipedia)

Wreckage from the plane crash. Photo credit: Agencia Brasil (Wikipedia)

Pitot tube, photo credit: Olivier Cleynen (Wikipedia)

Pitot tube. Photo credit: Olivier Cleynen (Wikipedia)