In the early hours of June 1 2009, Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris went missing, along with 216 passengers and 12 crew. The Airbus A330-200 disappeared mid-ocean, beyond radar coverage and in darkness. It took a shocked and bewildered Air France six hours to concede its loss and for several agonising days there was no trace. It was an utter mystery. No other airliner had vanished so completely in modern times. Even when wreckage was discovered the tragedy was no less perplexing. The aircraft had flown through a thunderstorm, but there was no distress signal, and the jet was state-of-the-art, a type that had never before been involved in a fatal accident. What had caused it to fall out of the sky?
The official report by French accident investigators is due in a month and seems likely to echo provisional verdicts suggesting human error. There is no doubt that at least one of AF447’s pilots made a fatal and sustained mistake, and the airline must bear responsibility for the actions of its crew. It will be a grievous blow for Air France, perhaps more damaging than the Concorde disaster of July 2000.
But there is another, worrying implication that the Telegraph can disclose for the first time: that the errors committed by the pilot doing the flying were not corrected by his more experienced colleagues because they did not know he was behaving in a manner bound to induce a stall. And the reason for that fatal lack of awareness lies partly in the design of the control stick – the “side stick” – used in all Airbus cockpits.
Anything to do with Airbus is important. The company has sold 11,500 aircraft to date, with 7,000 in the air. It commands half the world market in big airliners, the other half belonging to its great American rival, Boeing.
The mystery of AF447 has taken three years to resolve, involving immensely costly mid-Atlantic searches covering 17,000 square kilometres of often uncharted sea bed to depths of 4,700 metres. So remote was the place the airliner went down, in equatorial waters between Brazil and Africa, that it was five days before debris and the first bodies were recovered. Finally, almost two years later, robot submarines located the aircraft’s flight recorders, a near-miraculous feat that revitalised the biggest crash inquiry since Lockerbie.