Air France Flight 447: Pilot Errors Mounted in Tragic Crash, Report Finds

Moments of inaction in the face of contradictory flight data likely caused the doomed Airbus A330 to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009.

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JC Imagem / Alexandre Severo / Reuters

Debris of the missing Air France flight 447, recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, arrives at Recife's port June 14, 2009. An Air France Airbus 330 crashed into the sea on June 1 en route from Brazil to Paris, killing all 228 aboard.

Unsure of whether to trust their technical readings, pilots of Air France Flight 447 likely didn’t know how to react to malfunctions in midair and that crucial delay may have caused the flight’s crash in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 people on board, according to the results of a massive French investigation into the incident.

France’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis spent more than two years searching for wreckage and data recorders in the aftermath of the horrific crash of the Airbus 330, en route to France from Brazil. Released Thursday, the latest report essentially claims that as the plane’s speed sensors failed and stall warning alarms blared throughout the cockpit, the pilots, for unknown reasons, failed to act. When they finally realized inaction was no longer acceptable, they were unsure of what to do.

(PHOTOS: Underwater Photos: Air France 447 Flight Data Recorder Found)

By piecing together data and voice recordings from the ‘black boxes’ salvaged from the crash site, investigators found that the plane took three minutes and 30 seconds to plummet into the ocean, with no warning given to passengers; data shows the oxygen masks were never deployed. The tragedy, they ruled, was likely was a combination of ignored stall warnings and invalid speed sensor readings.

As the computer called out stall warnings, the voice data reveals the pilots didn’t discuss the situation. And when the plane made good on those threats and stalled out at 38,000 feet, the failed speed sensors further muddled the pilots’ decision making.

In desperation, the pilots, with fully operational engines and an intact airframe, pointed the nose upward in the final minutes of the flight, but that move only exacerbated the stall. Just three seconds before the crash, one pilot finally realized they were going to hit, saying, “Damn it, we’re going to crash, this can’t be true!” The plane struck the water belly first.

Reports say that inadequate high-altitude training may have led to the pilot errors and chief investigator Alain Bouillard says that pilots simply needed to properly react to in-flight circumstances. “When it comes down to it, safety will always be based on the capacity of the pilots and the signals which they are given, which they have to understand and react to,” he said.

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