Air France 447: A Cockpit China Syndrome

The following is excerpted from the author's manuscript, Murder By Computer.

Imagine you're the captain. The computer climbed your state-of-the-art computerized Airbus A330 to 35,000 feet, leveled off, then its autothrottles set cruise thrust. You're in clouds this pitch-black night, dodging thunderstorms your color radar depicts so beautifully. Easy francs. You'll be home for breakfast, enjoying your wife's warm croissants.

You picture your 216 sleeping passengers from thirty-two nations. They feel safe, warm, secure. You look overhead to make sure the Fasten Seat Belt sign is on . . . oui.

You scan your instruments: wings-level, Mach .82, those pesky thunderstorms way off to your right so passengers can sleep. Another ho-hum, routine Atlantic crossing.

You have no way to know that your life will end in terror in six minutes.

You think about last November's Quantas Airbus rogue computer that plunged the plane 650 feet, out-of-control, while passengers screamed bloody murder before the pilots wrestled control back. Aussie investigators tracked the plunge down to a rogue computer -- one of three running the ship.

Thinking about this makes you shudder; you scan every gauge, looking for trouble.

Everything looks perfect. You feel silly; you Googled the odds. One in thirteen million of dying in a plane crash. Your personal odds? Once every 20,000 flights; you'll take those. But they can prove anything with statistics, so you scan the cockpit again -- nothing. But pilots don't call these 'Scarebuses' for nothing.

Now you hear a computerized cavalry charge: Tah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah! A red MASTER WARNING light flashes on-and-off, on-and-off. You punch the light to cancel it, then shift your attention to the center CRT and see in red: AUTOPILOT OFF. Meaning: I AM TOO SICK TO FLY; YOU'VE GOT THE CONTROLS.

You think, no big deal . . . routine autopilot trip . . . I'll turn it back on. You hit the button to turn it back on . . . but . . . it won't. Frustrated, you jackhammer the button to get the autopilot back on . . . nothing.

You gingerly slip your left hand around your side flight controls joy stick, cradle it like a newborn kitten, then cautiously start flying manually. But this beast starts wallowing; hand-flying amounts to steering the QE2 with a two-foot rudder. But why won't the damned autopilot work? You ask your copilot, "Please check the circuit break . . ."

You hear a computer chime DING! And another MASTER WARNING:


Now the ram air sensors that feed our flight instruments are icing up? Tres' mal.

DING! Another MASTER WARNING you smash, then look at the center screen and see: CTL ALTN LAW.

What the hell's that? Why does the computer speak Greek? Don't programmers realize English is my second language? Why not use real words? You think back to training, then remember it means that multiple flight control computers have failed. Mon dieu! Airbus software isolates any single failure. Multiple failures are impossible!

Your copilot looks up CTL ALTN LAW in the operating manual, then explains that you have also lost wing flight spoilers.

We've lost flight controls? What could happen next? DING! Another MASTER WARNING you cancel, then look at the center screen and see:


Je n'y crois pas! Now the autothrottles failed? The problem is infecting other computers?

You try to turn the autothrottles back on, but they refuse to help. But if you don't move the throttles, the engines should freeze safely at cruise thrust. But, why won't they . . .

DING! Another MASTER WARNING. What now!?

The center screen shows: NAV TCAS FAULT. The collision-avoidance system lost power, but who gives a damn this far out over the Atlantic? The computer is crying wolf.

Now you notice one of twenty-four fricking warning flags pop in view on your artificial horizon. What's this one? How do they expect you to remember all this crap!

Now you look at your emergency instruments to make sure they haven't failed . . . whew. Lose those, you think, we're in deep trouble.

DING! Another MASTER WARNING you PUNCH angrily, then see more Greek: F/CTL RUD TRV LIM FAULT. Enculeur de porcs!

You feel your face flush with fear. When will these failures stop? What if they don't?

You imagine yourself battling the Hydra; you chop one head off only to have two more appear. DING! Another MASTER WARNING you SMASH, then read: NAV ADR DISAGREE. Quoi? More Greek? Why keep it secret what's going on! Fils de chienne!

Your brain's amyglada short-circuits; you lose the ability to make good decisions. You watch your copilot open the operating manual, then read, "The primary flight computer rejected data from one of the air data computers as it has strayed away from the other two systems."

You ask what that gibberish means; he doesn't know.

Your 100-million dollar plane has disintegrated into a garbage truck.

Computers are crashing faster and more mysteriously than you can understand or control -- a runaway China Syndrome. You worry anxiously, what's next?

You hear a computer warn, STALL! STALL! You glance at your speed: 60 knots! This cannot be! Now the voice hollers, OVERSPEED! OVERSPEED!

Sacre bleu! We cannot be both too slow and too fast!

Your terrified copilot wags a finger at your emergency instruments. You glance over and see . . . the laser ring gyros have failed! Oh, merde!

Your pulse races; you taste stomach bile. You cringe as you hear another DING! and see another flashing MASTER CAUTION light you SMASH.

You hesitantly look at the center CRT and holler, "Mon Dieu!" as you see:




Sacre' bleu!

Now you look at your flight instrument screens, see they're blank, then dart your gaze to your copilot's, hopeful they're working, but see . . . blank screens.

Everything is gone! This isn't supposed to happen! How can we fly? We can't! We could be inverted and not know! Lindbergh had better instruments!

You look outside for a horizon to fly off of and see . . . utter blackness.


You seethe, which is it, Computer? Too slow or too fast?

The computers designed to protect are murdering everyone. The software ignited a chain reaction of failures that cascaded into secondary software modules that crashed into an infinite thrashing loop -- a state of deadlock. There is no logic to computer chaos; you will not win this battle.

You look at the center CRT and see a cascade of warnings. The last five mean: Each pair of us computirs think the thurd shuld be locked in a rubbir room, so fir yur protekshun, are all shutting down. Good luk.

You battled this computerized Hydra as best you can these four minutes, but it has won. Some foresighted programmer rendered you powerless. Airbus put electrons in charge instead of your neurons.


You are trapped in a chamber of horrors. You pray as you realize that you and 227 are about to die. And there's nothing you can do to stop it.

You think about your wife's croissants and smile; you can taste them. You say aloud, "Je t'aime ma chérie" for the recorder, then lovingly cradle the joy stick to eek-out precious extra moments of life.


Which is it? Who knows from computers having a cerebral hemorrhage?

Are we right-side up or upside-down? No way to tell. Your fingertips tingle. You wonder, how . . . did this happen? Oh, yeah . . . the computers crashed.

John T. Halliday is the author of the forthcoming Murder By Computer as well as Flying Through Midnight. He flew the Boeing 767 and Boeing 757 for ten years as an international captain for a major U.S. airline and has worked in aviation psychology for thirty years to prevent more airline crashes.