Air France Jet's Final Minutes A Free-Fall - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Air France Jet's Final Minutes A Free-Fall

USATODAY.COM - The final moments of Air France Flight 447 were a harrowing free-fall over the Atlantic Ocean as the wide-body jet plunged more than 7 miles in less than four minutes, French accident investigators said Friday.

The Airbus A330 jet carrying 228 people became stalled — one of the greatest hazards in aviation because the air stops flowing over the wings and an aircraft can no longer fly — about 2 hours and 11 minutes after leaving Rio de Janeiro for Paris on June 1, 2009.

Once the jet stalled, it fell like a leaf, its wings rocking back and forth, plummeting at speeds of more than 100 mph, according to the jet's flight data recorder.

The French Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses, or BEA, the nation's aviation accident investigation agency, did not rule on the cause of the crash, but the data released point to confusion over misleading speed indications and pilot miscalculations that allowed the jet to get too slow. Based on earlier information released by the BEA, investigators believe that the jet's speed sensors became iced over and inaccurate.

"I don't have any more indications," a co-pilot who was flying the plane said about two minutes into the emergency, apparently referring to the fact that cockpit gauges weren't displaying accurate speeds. The comment, from the jet's cockpit voice recorder, was apparently translated from French to English by the BEA.

The new data in the investigation were made possible by the discovery of the jet's wreckage on the seabed 12,800 feet below the surface in March. Both crash-proof recorders were retrieved and operated flawlessly despite spending nearly two years at such depths, the BEA said.

The ordeal began about 10 minutes after the captain announced he was taking a rest break, a routine pilots follow on lengthy overseas flights. A spare co-pilot was summoned to the cockpit to take the captain's place.

Another co-pilot who was flying the plane ordered a slight left turn to avoid storms that they had spotted ahead and warned flight attendants that they were about to fly into turbulent air.

Two minutes after that, the emergency began abruptly when the autopilot shut itself off. "I have the controls," one of the co-pilots said. The captain returned to the cockpit about 1½ minutes after the autopilot disengaged.

Almost immediately, the pilot pulled the jet into a climb, rising from a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet to 38,000 feet.

If pilots lose accurate speed information, they are taught to fly level and maintain the same power setting until they can diagnose the problem.

At some point, the pilot reduced the jet engine power to idle. Even as the jet's forward speed slowed and it entered a dangerous stall, the pilot continued to try to pull the nose up, the BEA said.

Pilots are trained to do the opposite — lower the nose to increase airflow over the wings — in a stall. However, errors similar to those made by the Air France pilots are common and have been linked to dozens of crashes around the world.

The erroneous speed indications were short-lived, lasting less than one minute, the BEA said. Aircraft warning systems indicating that the plane had stalled sounded on and off as the jet plunged, the agency said.

The final descent lasted 3 minutes and 30 seconds, the BEA said. The last recorded measurement shows the plane plummeting at 10,912 feet per minute — 124 mph.

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