IT is not uncommon to exclaim ‘pilot error’ when hearing about a serious aircraft accident.
On extremely rare occasions a pilot has a ‘bad day at the office’ and can even perform with gross negligence, however most accidents are not pilot error.
Accident investigators can confirm within days after interrogating the flight recorders if pilot error was the cause; let’s look at some of these.
The KLM B747 in 1977 taking off at Tenerife in dense fog, hit a PanAm B747 still on the runway causing record loss of life with 583 fatalities. Investigators found the pilot had no permission to take off. Pilot error! The Helios B737 that departed Cyprus for Athens in 2005 but the pilot and most passengers soon became unconscious due to hypoxia.
The aircraft crashed close to Athens. Investigators found the cockpit had not been set to pressurize the cabin. Pilot error! Aeroflot A310 on route to Hong Kong (1994). The Captain allows his children to sit in his seat; one moved the controls rapidly and the Captain never recovered the aircraft. Pilot error! There are more but few and far between.
Now let’s look at a specific recent case were the American media called, Pilot error! In 2009 Air France AF477 disappeared mid-Atlantic, but after two years the flight recorders were recovered and data released. The data showed they had flown into heavy, but manageable turbulence.
Unknown to the pilots their instruments began giving erroneous indications, and being tossed around in complete darkness they followed the standard practice of flying the aircraft manually following their instruments.
Sadly, but very quickly the aircraft stalled and crashed. The recovered data also showed that after the penetration of the storm super-cooled water droplets froze the heated Pitot probes that send the signals to the computers and instruments that the crew desperately rely on, making these probes malfunction.
The investigators simulated the defect on a flight simulator and after a few goes announced the aircraft could have recovered from the stall. This generated a media release of pilot error! The simulator tests were more like playing on a video games console until you got it right, including pressing the reset button when it crashes.
Flight AF477 was ploughing through a severe storm with the crew having no idea they’re being fed wrong signals and there ain’t no reset button! No commercial airliner has ever survived a flight with total blockage of its Pitot static system!
There was the North West B727 who forgot to turn on the Pitot probe heaters, they iced up The crew got erroneous signals which resulted in a crash.
Then we have the Birgen Air B757 having spent a week on the ground at Puerto Plata were an insect built a nest in the Pitot probe.
The aircraft took off but crashed a few minutes latter due erroneous cockpit instrument instructions. We also have the AreoPeru B757.
During being washed the Static ports were taped over to prevent ingress of water, and the tape left on. Unfortunately the results are the same, aircraft takes off, false signals to the cockpit, aircraft crashes.
Finally pilots had to threaten strike action to have Air France change all the faulty Pitot probes on the Airbus 330 and a new simulator training programme was devised. Pilot Error? I don’t think so!