The black box flight recorders from the airliner crash off Brazil of Air France was published in Popular Mechanics March 2012 page 22. From these audio recording transcripts it becomes obvious that the immediate cause of the crash was pilot error That is a common reason for crashes, but the real cause was current aviation rules for pilot training. The two copilots literally didn’t know what to do when the airplane instruments failed and when the airplane stalled they did exactly the wrong thing.
The disaster began when the pitot-static tubes iced over, causing the instruments that give altitude and airspeed to fail. That by itself wouldn’t cause any problem if the copilots simply left the power settings as they were and kept the airplane flying straight and level. That is easily done either by looking out the window at the horizon or using the gyroscopically powered artificial horizon instrument. Unfortunately a typical human panic reaction to an instrument failure is to gain altitude. That was totally unnecessary if they were already cruising at 40,000 foot altitude. In fact at that altitude gaining even more altitude would put the airplane into thinner air than is ideal and would make a stall even more likely.
But what happened was that their human reaction to this minor event was to pull the stick full back, climb steeply for thousands of feet and come to a near standstill in the thin air; then when the airplane stalled and would have pitched forward, they still held the stick full back. The command pilot was out of the cockpit at the moment these things happened and two copilots, at the controls, were doing the worst possible thing to do in a stalled condition and continued doing it for four whole minutes. These pilots were making a mistake that all pilots in small fabric planes usually learn to avoid in their first hour of flight training. But with the new high power and high speed commercial jets there apparently was no training at all for a stall because these are very fast airplanes that are never flown anywhere near the slow airspeed which causes a stall. For a pilot to stall a perfectly airworthy airliner, filled with passengers, which is flying straight and level at normal flying altitude and at normal speed demands incredibly poor pilot training. That poor training resulted from totally faulty regulations. The problem wasn’t the pilots, and not even their instructors; it was with what they had been trained to do and that was totally wrong for what has caused many perfectly fine airplanes to crash.
The problem is a very simple one; the airplane stalled because the pilot was holding the control stick too far back for too long. The airplane climbed because the stick was held back and it climbed so steeply that it slowed to below flying speed and stalled. It is a perfectly natural thing for airplanes to do. If you have ever thrown a paper airplane you will see it fly up for a while until it stalls and then comes back down for a while until it gains flying speed then it goes back up. A paper airplane will keep doing this up and down action until it hits the ground. That is what will happen if the airplane is near proper trim and the pilots leave their hands off of the controls, but the control surfaces on the tail, called elevators on a big jet, are capable of being held in a position which will maintain a stall. And quite often one wing will stall before the other and the airplane will fall into a spin where the inside wing is stalled and the outside one is still flying. When in this condition he airplane will corkscrew all the way into the ground unless the pilots do the right things.
These are all well known flying conditions and are easy for the pilot to avoid, and even when in one of these nonflying conditions, like a stall or spin, they are easy to get out of if there is sufficient altitude. However, it requires doing the right thing, but that thing is counter-intuitive for an inexperienced, person at the controls, I hesitate to call them a pilot, if they don’t have this ability. Simply push the controls forward for a few seconds until the airplane is moving through the air in the proper attitude, then push the appropriate foot pedal to straighten it, which is only needed if the plane is in a spin, and after a few seconds pull the nose back up to level flight. It only takes a few seconds to correct for the misalignment of the airplane, but it requires pushing the stick forward, and instead the copilot held the stick back for four whole minutes until it was too late.
These pilots had probably been told about stalls and spins in their training classes and could have answered a paper quiz on what to do when in a stall condition, but obviously they didn’t know what a stall felt like and therefore it never occurred to them what should be done. When the command pilot entered the cockpit it took him a minute to realize the copilot was holding the stick full back and by the time he took over it was too late and they crashed, killing everyone on board.
There is a cheap and easy fix for this problem. Require all pilots, especially high performance airliner pilots, to have several hours flight time per year in a light plane where they practice stalls, spins and other unusual flying conditions, including total loss of functional flight instruments. We used to call it, “Flying by the seat of your pants.” and it is easy to do.
The recovery from stalls and spins and instrument failure should be a reflex for every pilot, even an airliner pilot.