Explained | The 2009 Air France crash that killed 228 people

The crash was significant in aviation history as it led to changes in air speed sensors and pilot training.

The crash was significant in aviation history as it led to changes in air speed sensors and pilot training.

The story so far: After years of waiting, the trial in the 2009 Air France flight crash where 228 people on board were killed on their way to Paris, France from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil began on Monday. The airline Air France and aeroplane manufacturer Airbus are charged with involuntary manslaughter. The families of the victims have alleged that the pilots were not sufficiently trained to handle the loss of speed readings caused by crucial equipment freezing over in a storm, news agency AFP reported.

Recovered part of aircraft’s galley shows downward deformation.

Recovered part of aircraft’s galley shows downward deformation.
| Photo Credit: BEA report

If convicted, each company faces potential fines of up to 225,000 euros ($219,000), as per agency reports. Imprisonment of negligent parties is not involved since it is only the companies that are on trial.

The crash was significant in aviation history as it led to changes in air speed sensors and pilot training.

Overview

On May 31, 2009, Air France flight 447 — an Airbus 330 — left the international airport in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, at 22.29 UTC and was flying to the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. It had 216 passengers onboard, with three flight crew – one captain and two co-pilots – and nine cabin crew members.

At around 2.10 UTC after midnight, the flight’s automatic systems disconnected and speed indications were noted to be incorrect, probably after pitot systems – an instrument that measures the total pressure – gathered ice crystals. The pilots took manual control of the flight but the aircraft stayed in a stall situation till it crashed.

Position of the pitot probes on the Airbus A330

Position of the pitot probes on the Airbus A330
| Photo Credit: BEA report

The flight eventually crashed into the Atlantic Ocean at 2.14 UTC, after sounding warning systems about stalling and ground proximity. Screams of “I don’t have control of the plane at all”, and “we’ve lost the speeds” were heard from the co-pilots before the aeroplane crashed into the ocean.

Findings of the 2012 report by French civil aviation safety investigation authority (BEA)

The BEA report noted that the pilots were late to identify the deviation from and insufficient correction in flight path. The crew also failed to diagnose the stall situation which made timely recovery difficult.

AF447 encountered powerful cloud clusters on its route, which could have caused turbulence— a fact noted during the analysis of the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR). The precise composition of these clouds is not known, particularly “with regard to the super-cooled water/ice crystal divide”, and the size of those particles. It was also noted that many flights at the same altitude, flying both before and after AF447, changed their routes to avoid the cloud clusters.

When the autopilot disengaged, the captain was resting while the two co-pilots were in the cockpit. The captain returned inside after one minute and thirty seconds. The co-pilots had not undergone high-altitude in-flight training for a “vol avec IAS douteuse” (flight with an unreliable Indicated Air Speed) or on manual aeroplane handling.

The engines seemed to have been functioning normally.

It was also noted that coordination between ground control centres was lacking, thus not allowing forimmediate identification of the problems of AF447. The flight failed to establish contact with air traffic controllers at crucial points on its path.

Between 2.47 and 5.30 UTC, different ground control centres questioned the aeroplane’s passage at various reporting points, but no alert phase was triggered. There had been no radio or radar contact with the aeroplane after 1.35 UTC.

The Air France operations control centre (OCC) set up a crisis group at 8.00 UTC. From the last point in time where there was contact between the aeroplane and ground control, it took more than nine hours to send the first search aircraft.

Search and recovery

The wreckage was located on April 2, 2011, during a search operation close to the aeroplane’s last known location, the BEA report said. This was the fourth phase of investigation to locate the remains of the plane – 22 months after it disappeared.

Air France and Airbus financed the estimated $12.5 million cost of the fourth phase of the search. About $28 million had already been spent on the three previous searches for the wreckage.

Phase five of the recovery operation began on April 22, 2011. On May 1, the FDR module was found and brought to the surface. The CVR was found the next day. Parts of the plane and 104 bodies were also found, some still strapped to their seats.

Legal cases

In 2021, the Paris public prosecutor requested that both Airbus and Air France should stand trial on charges of manslaughter in the crash. Later that year, a court in Paris ruled in favour of the prosecution and overturned an earlier court decision to drop the case against the two aviation companies.

In the present trial, the heads of both companies have pleaded not guilty to the involuntary corporate manslaughter of the 228 individuals killed in the crash.

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