PARIS – Confronted with faulty instrument readings and alarms going off in the cockpit, the pilots of an Air France jetliner struggled to tame the aircraft as it went into an aerodynamic stall, rolled, and finally plunged 38,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean in just 3 1/2 minutes.
But the passengers on that doomed Rio de Janeiro-to-Paris flight were probably asleep or nodding off and didn’t realize what was going on as the aircraft fell nose-up toward the sea, the director of the French accident investigating bureau said after releasing preliminary black-box data on the June 1, 2009, disaster.
All 228 people aboard the Airbus A330 died.
The brief, highly technical report by the BEA, France’s accident investigation agency, contains only selective remarks from the cockpit recorder, offers no analysis and assigns no blame. It also does not answer the key question: What caused the crash?
But several experts familiar with the report said the co-pilot at the controls, at 32 the youngest of the three-man cockpit crew, Cedric Bonin, may have responded incorrectly to the emergency by pointing the nose upward, perhaps because he was confused by the incorrect readings.
The plane’s external speed sensors, called Pitot tubes, have long been considered a likely culprit in the disaster, with experts suggesting they may have been iced over. And the BEA investigators found that two sets of instruments on the plane gave different speed readings, with the discrepancies lasting less than a minute.
Since the accident, Air France has replaced the speed monitors on all its Airbus A330 and A340 aircraft.
An official at Airbus said the aircraft’s nose should have been pointed slightly downward to enable the plane to regain lift after it had gone into an aerodynamic stall.
“This is part of the general pilot training for any aircraft,” said the official. He was not authorized to speak on that subject and asked not to be identified by name.
Other aviation experts concurred. In an aerodynamic stall, a plane most often loses lift because it is traveling too slowly, and begins to fall out of the sky. Pointing the nose downward enables the aircraft to pick up speed, gain lift and pull out of the stall.
Pulling the nose up is “an inappropriate way to respond” to an aerodynamic stall, said Paul Hayes, director of air safety for aviation consulting firm Ascend Worldwide Ltd. “He either misidentified what was happening or became confused.”
He cautioned that Friday’s report was brief and that it was still unclear how the series of events started.
The flight data recorder and cockpit recorder were dredged from the ocean in early May, along with some bodies.
They showed, in addition to inconsistent speed readings, two co-pilots working methodically to right the plane manually after autopilot stopped. Captain Marc Dubois returned from a routine rest to the cockpit amid what moments later became an irretrievably catastrophic situation.