AirAsia 8501 accident: It’s not only pilot mistake

6 months, 21 days ago

( CNN ) It’s much simpler to point blame at the crew of an airplane that crashes than to consider the complications of other factors. Pilot error is comfy nomenclature in understanding the cause of a tragedy because we can all see the act of a human making a mistake.

But in the situation of AirAsia 8501, there is more to the narrative that led to the crash into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board in December 2014.

First, it is important to understand the sequence of events that led to the accident.


That being said, the malfunction should not have been serious enough to cause a tragedy, but simply a temporary distraction followed by a slight alteration to the pilot’s procedures for the arrival.

Instead, the co-pilot became focused on the problem and was justifiably surprised by the airplane banking on its own after the circuit breaker was pulled; he had a delayed response. The co-pilot probably overreacted to the situation and overcontrolled his manual inputs. If either pilot had known the potential effects of pulling the circuit breaker, certainly they would not have done so.

But why did the captain pull the circuit breaker?

Having experienced the same problem only three days earlier on the ground, a mechanic had performed this action in the process of fixing their own problems. Regrettably, in flight, the airplane reacted differently.

With the airplane unplugged from the autopilot and improper control inputs being applied by the co-pilot, the airplane entered an aerodynamic stalling.

Although the captain recognise the situation, it appears that he did not take full control of the airplane away from the co-pilot. Why?

In the stress of the situation, he might have forgotten that the Airbus flight control sidesticks are not mechanically connected. Pilots have no visual or tactile sense of what input the other pilot is applying. A button on the sidestick must continue to be pressed and held for 40 seconds to take control from one side or the other. This was not done.

In addition, the captain vocalized untypical commands to the co-pilot in an attempt to assist in the stall recovery. The commands were contradictory and confusing. And the stall recovery was not performed as trained, with critical recovery procedures omitted.

All airlines in the U.S. practice recovery techniques from unusual positions, commonly referred to as upset recoveries.

AirAsia’s attitude was that this type of training was unnecessary because Airbus engineering designs electronic protections to prevent such unusual position upsets. But these protections degrade if mechanical malfunctions cause the airplane to enter what Airbus calls “Alternate Law, ” which is the situation faced by the pilots of AirAsia 8501.

At the end of the day, this was a preventable crash. Blaming this accident wholly on the pilots will not solve the problem. What will solve the problem are the numerous recommendations given to the airline. Many of these recommendations have already been implemented.

This is an accident from which the entire industry can learn. Let’s hope that we in the business heed its warning.

Join us on CNNOpinion .~ ATAGEND
Read CNNOpinion’s Flipboard magazine .

Read more: