Saturday, 13 June 2009

Air France disaster - were faulty sensors to blame?

After the worst disaster in Air France history, the airline is reserving judgement over whether it was faulty speed sensors that were the cause. However the company is taking the precaution of replacing the old sensors, as stated by the airline’s chief executive, Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, on Thursday.

On June 1st Air France flight 447 disappeared en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris Charles de Gaulle, with 228 people on board. About 3.5 hours after take off, the Airbus A330-203 lost contact with air traffic control at a point some 300 km north-east of the Brazilian city of Natal. The final message received from the plane was an automated one saying that the electrical system had failed, and it is thought that the plane had flown into towering thunderstorms.
We now know that the plane crashed and that nobody on board survived, making this the worst loss of life ever in this much-respected airline’s 75 year history, and the worst accident ever in French aviation history. Significantly, it is also the first accident in commercial service that has resulted in fatality during the 16 years of operation of the Airbus A330.

So what caused this tragedy? Air accident investigators have found some evidence that the Airbus registered inconsistent speed readings just before contact was lost, and this raises speculation that the pilots may have been flying at the wrong speed without realising it, which may well have played a role in causing the crash.

It has also been found that there has been a temporary loss of air speed data on previous Airbus flights due to ice collecting in the sensors. Air France is now speeding up a replacement program for the sensors which had already been planned.

“As circumstances would have it, the first replacements arrived practically on the eve of the accident, on the Friday,” Gourgeon told a news briefing, adding: “I am not convinced that speed sensors were the cause of crash.”

The French air accident agency has said it is still too early to determine the exact cause of the crash, and that at the moment we are dealing with only two certainties, firstly that the plane had hit stormy weather, and secondly that the speed readings were not clear.

It is a disaster that has left Air France in a state of shock, has left families, loved ones and friends devastated, and is the sort of news that every frequent flier dreads to hear.