Bloomberg News

Air France Crash Book Shows Transcript of Pilot Confusion

October 13, 2011

(Adds comment from France’s BEA from fifth paragraph.)

Oct. 13 (Bloomberg) -- The first book investigating the Air France 447 crash into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 supports official conclusions that the pilots took the wrong measures to avert disaster that killed all 228 on board.

Publishing what he says is the first full transcript of the pilots’ voice recordings, French aviation author Jean-Pierre Otelli describes a scene in the Airbus SAS cockpit that is dominated by confusion, a lack of coordination, and denial among the flight crew as the jet plunged through the night sky toward the ocean surface. Otelli, who specializes in aviation safety, publishes his book “Piloting Error, Volume 5” today.

Aviation investigators have been able to piece together the last hours of the June 2009 flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris after retrieving the flight and data recorders from the ocean ground following a two-year search. France’s BEA investigator has published two reports that contained only select transcripts. The reports showed the crew pulled the jet into a steep climb until it slowed to an aerodynamic stall before slumping into the sea.

“This accident, and the mystery surrounding it, elicited huge emotion in France as well as in Brazil,” Otelli writes. “Beyond the questions raised about modern air safety and pilot training, the crash of the Rio-Paris flight will remain a case study in the annals of air transport.”

Ice-Blocked Tubes

The BEA accident investigation bureau said it ’’strongly condemns’’ the disclosure of the full transcript. The mention of personal conversations between the crew members “have no bearing on the event, which shows a lack of respect for the memory of the late crew members,” the bureau said.

The BEA will issue a final report on the accident June 2012 following meetings of experts that will examine pilot behaviors in stressful situations. An interim report from a criminal probe earlier this month broadly endorsed the findings by the BEA in a report in May, which showed ice-blocked speed sensors shut down the aircraft’s autopilot and the crew reacting incorrectly.

The French aviation safety authority earlier this year released only limited portions of pilots’ conversations to help shed light on what occurred in the cockpit. Air France SA said yesterday that the information in the book was ’’non-verified, and non-verifiable,’’ saying it brought “no new elements.”

Meat Cargo

“At this stage, the analysis done by judicial experts and the technical investigation led by the BEA don’t permit any definitive conclusions to be drawn,” the Paris-based airline said in a statement commenting on Otelli’s book.

Otelli’s presentation of the night’s events showcase the relative inexperience of the pilot who was controlling the plane. At 32 years of age, he was the youngest and least tested, with less than a third of the flight hours of the captain who was almost twice his age, and only a handful of flights to South America.

When the captain prepared to leave the cockpit for routine crew rest, he asked the young pilot if he had a full airline pilot’s license, rather than just a commercial pilot license, Otelli’s account shows. The captain returned to the flight deck in the last moments of the flight, but never resumed control.

Anyone for Whisky?

As the plane hurtled vertically toward the sea, time to salvage the aircraft quickly ran out, Otelli writes. Aggravating the situation was the fact that neither of the co-pilots appeared entirely sure at times who had the controls of the plane.

The book acts as a fly-on-the-wall account that reveals some of the more trivial banter in the cockpit in the hours before the deadly impact.

At one point, a flight attendant enters the cockpit to inquire if the temperature in the baggage hold could be lowered to protect the meat she’s brought back in her suitcase from Brazil, Otelli’s transcript says. The pilot acquiesces, joking that they’d send her the bill for the extra fuel consumed.

Earlier in the flight, the captain and the younger co-pilot are enjoying music from a portable player after dinner, prompting the junior pilot to joke that “all we need is whisky,” Otelli writes.

Air France and Airbus were charged in March with manslaughter in the criminal investigation, an interim status that does not mean they will stand trial. Both companies deny the charges. Lawyers for Air France, Airbus and the crew did not return messages left at their offices and on their mobile phones for comment.

“It reflects what has already been published by the BEA,” Airbus spokesman Stefan Schaffrath said by e-mail.

“Piloting Error, Volume 5,” is published by Altipresse, based near Paris, for 24 euros ($33).

--Editor: Benedikt Kammel, Heather Harris

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrea Rothman in Toulouse, France at aerothman@bloomberg.net Heather Smith in Paris at hsmith26@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at bkammel@bloomberg.net


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