Air France 447: A Cockpit China Syndrome

John T. Halliday Pilot, Author, Murder By Computer: The Hidden Perils Of Air Travel

The fourth of a series dedicated to the 228 lost souls and their families.

Dr. Aisling Butler of Ireland -- no more.

My conclusions about the causes of the Air France 447 tragedy have been shaped not just by my decades as an international airline captain and cockpit computer analyst, but by learning from world-class experts. Here are a few of their voices:

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader: "What's the solution? Well, you look at the objective. Let's say you want a safety law; you want a company to do something different. You say, what has to be done? Well, the first step is to make people aware of the problem. If they aren't aware their friends were killed because of a defective design, they're not going to be interested in your solution." -- TIME interview of Ralph Nader, author, Unsafe At Any Speed

Airbus spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn on Air France 447: "Electronic signals send the pilot's input via wires to actuators that move control surfaces, keeping the aircraft within safe operating parameters. The computer cuts down on human error by not letting a pilot maneuver the plane to extremes that would endanger the aircraft's structural integrity. The computer maximizes safe control of the aircraft. We are not considering grounding the fleet because it is safe." -- Fox News June 13, 2009

Dr. Nancy G. Leveson: "In several Airbus accidents, the pilots found themselves fighting the automation for control of the aircraft which had been designed to give ultimate authority to the plane." -- 2004, MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics

Bosses blame pilots for Air France 447 disaster.

The CEO of Airbus told le Parisien, "The pitot probes may have been a factor in explaining the crash. They were not the principal reason." (Translation: the pilots are.) Air France is trying to finger its pilots, according to Christophe Guillot-Noel, head of an association of AF447 victims' families. Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, the Air France boss, told them that "faulty decision-making is suspected." -- The London Times, September 5

"Smoking does not cause cancer." -- Tobacco CEOs

CEOs represent their corporations; I speak for the people.

"Car safety has been beset by self-styled experts (Ralph Nader) with radical and ill-conceived proposals. The thesis of these amateur engineers is that cars (planes) should be made crashproof, that federal regulation is required. It is unrealistic to talk about a crash-proof car (plane). We can only design in the greatest degree of safety consistent with essential functional characteristics.

"Beyond that, we must depend on drivers (pilots) for intelligent use. The suggestion that we abandon hope of teaching drivers (pilots) to avoid crashes and concentrate on cars (planes) that will make collisions harmless is a perplexing combination of defeatism and wishful thinking." -- General Motors CEO John F. Gordon, keynote speaker, National Safety Congress, October 17, 1961 (Unsafe At Any Speed)

"Pilot error is not a cause, but a symptom of trouble deeper inside the system. Pilots do things that are reasonable . . . failures are baked into the nature of people's work and organization, symptoms of deeper trouble or byproducts of systemic brittleness in the way business is done." -- Dr. Sidney Dekker, Lund University, Ljungbyhed, Sweden

"Air France has started giving simulator training to all Airbus crews to teach them how to handle high altitude failures in speed data." -- The London Times, September 5

"Training can not and should not be a fix for a lousy design." -- Drs. Kathy Mosier and Linda Skitka

"All Airbus aircraft and the A330s are certified by the world's air-worthiness authorities as safe." -- Airbus spokesman Justin Dubon.

"I have documented hundreds of aerospace software failure cases. There are serious risks in reliance on software in safety-critical applications. A innocuous addition to software could have disastrous effects not discovered in testing. Never trust anyone who says such failures can never happen." -- Computer scientist Peter Neuman

Read the full story in Murder By Computer: The Hidden Perils of Air Travel.

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