When The Co-Pilot Of Air France 447 Suddenly Lost Control, The Consequences Proved To Be Deadly

In the last few decades, all modes of transport have continued to evolve. So with that in mind, people can now rely on several different vehicles to get them to their required destination. For shorter journeys, cars, buses and trains remain some of the more popular choices with passengers.

However, when it comes to longer trips, airplanes are now the go-to form of transportation. Thanks to commercial flights, passengers can travel to countries across the world in just a few hours. And given the number of airlines that are currently in business, customers can visit almost anywhere on the planet.

On that note, 216 people took their seats on an Air France plane in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in May 2009, joining a crew of 12 on board. The Airbus A330 jet was scheduled to travel from the South American country to Paris, France, overnight. So, as the early evening approached in Rio, the aircraft began its long journey.

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Around half-way through the flight’s third hour, the plane’s captain, Marc Dubois, looked to get some rest. So, his co-pilot Pierre-Cédric Bonin sat at the helm. As he departed the cockpit, an additional co-pilot named David Robert took his place. Just a few minutes later, though, Dubois was summoned back by his panicked colleagues.

Back in 1969, an aerospace company named Airbus revealed that it would be building its very first airplane. Some three years on from that, the jet in question took to the skies for its maiden journey. Dubbed the A300, it could house over 260 people on board, with one airline in particular taking a liking to it.

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Indeed, the A300 made its commercial debut in 1974 thanks to Air France. After decades in service, those models are still being used today, but the last of them was built in 2007. However, Airbus looked to introduce a new set of planes to its line-up following the success of that first effort.

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In the late 1980s, Airbus pressed ahead with its intentions to produce two new models, referred to as the A330 and the A340. The former made its debut in 1992, before being put into service a couple of years later. Since then, over 1,450 models have been manufactured, with Turkish Airlines utilizing more than any other airline.

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Meanwhile, Air France received a new A330 in the spring of 2005, adding to its collection of commercial jets. Some 12 months later, though, that particular plane was damaged in an accident, as it crashed into another Airbus model on the ground. Luckily for the airline, the craft escaped the collision with only a few blemishes.

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Around three years later, the A330 was then given a maintenance check in April 2009. After that, the Air France jet made its way to Brazil the following month, ahead of a return trip to Paris. Prior to the latter flight, the plane’s crew enjoyed a few days stopover in Rio.

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While the staff enjoyed some rest before getting back on the aircraft, the A330’s pilots grabbed some personal time. The plane’s captain, Marc Dubois, arrived in South America with an opera performer and the pair took in the sights of Rio. As for his co-pilot Pierre-Cédric Bonin, he invited his wife along; their two children, however, didn’t make the trip.

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Bonin was the youngest of the two pilots, coming up through the ranks at Air France. Ahead of the flight back to Paris, he’d racked up close to 3,000 hours in the cockpit. However, there was a caveat to that, as the Frenchman had relied upon the autopilot for much of that time in the air.

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In contrast to Bonin’s relatively short career, however, Dubois was incredibly experienced in the cockpit. Indeed, the A330 captain was already well-versed with several aircraft models before he joined Air France. Over the course of his time as a pilot, he had registered just under 11,000 hours behind the controls.

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With that in mind, Dubois and Bonin took to the cockpit once more on May 31, 2009, welcoming 216 guests on board. In total, there were close to 230 people on the A330 when it took off in the early evening. The journey to Paris was scheduled to clock in at around 11 hours duration.

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As for the plane itself, it had plenty of hi-tech equipment on-board. “The Airbus A330 is a docile twinjet airplane with an automated cockpit and a computer-based fly-by-wire control system,” read an article about the flight in Vanity Fair magazine. “[It] serves up an extraordinarily stable ride and, at the extremes, will intervene to keep pilots from exceeding aerodynamic and structural limits.”

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From there, the magazine then laid out the scene at the front of the jet. “Up in the cockpit, Dubois occupied the left seat, the standard captain’s position,” the piece continued. “Though he was the Pilot in Command, and ultimately responsible for the flight, he was serving on this run as the Pilot Not Flying, handling communications, checklists and backup duties.”

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Meanwhile, Dubois’ colleague had some other responsibilities in the cockpit. “Occupying the right seat was the junior co-pilot, Bonin, whose turn it was to be the Pilot Flying,” Vanity Fair magazine revealed. “Making the takeoff and landing, and managing the automation in cruising flight, Bonin switched on the autopilot four minutes after lifting off from Rio.”

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The trip back to France appeared fairly routine at the start, with the A330 set to fly over the Atlantic ocean from a northeasterly direction. Despite that, though, they were facing some potentially troublesome weather ahead in the Intertropical Convergence Zone. This area can be found above the Earth’s thermal equator, the area with the planet’s highest average temperatures

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At that time, there appeared to be several storms in the zone, with some reaching over 35,000 feet in altitude. On that note, the A330 couldn’t exceed its own maximum altitude to climb above the weather, meaning it would have to fly through it. However, before facing down that particular issue, the flight seemed to be going well.

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Dubois appeared to be very relaxed in the early stages of the flight, listening to some music in the cockpit. As for Bonin, he seemed a little on edge after hearing about the storms, but continued on with his duties. After that, the A330 reached a significant point in its journey.

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“By 10:30 p.m., the airplane had moved well offshore, beyond [the] view of air-traffic-control radar,” reported Vanity Fair magazine. “Dubois [then] checked in with Brazilian oceanic control, known as Atlantico. He gave a position report and the time estimates for two waypoints to come. The controller thanked him and instructed him to maintain 35,000 feet.”

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Dubois’ co-pilot wasn’t so sure, though, as his previous concerns bubbled to the surface. “Bonin was anxious to cross the Intertropical Convergence Zone at a higher altitude in order to stay in smooth air by remaining above the clouds if possible,” the magazine continued. “He was disturbed by Dubois’ acceptance of the altitude assigned.”

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On that note, the A330 could climb a little bit higher if need be, with a maximum altitude of 37,000 feet. Referred to as Rec Max, the aircraft would face particular issues if it reached that height. “The performance margins would be tight, because the airplane would be flying at a relatively low airspeed and close to an aerodynamic stall,” the publication revealed.

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With that in mind, Air France had previously advised all of its pilots to refrain from hitting the Rec Max. But despite those warnings, Bonin continued to show a real eagerness to climb above 35,000 feet due to the weather ahead. As the storms got closer, Dubois then told his co-pilot, “We’re going to wait a bit, see if this passes.”

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Following that conversation, Dubois made a decision that eventually proved pivotal. The captain decided to get some rest just under four hours into the flight, with the bad weather still to come. As he left the cockpit, another co-pilot named David Robert took his place. From there, the situation took a sudden turn.

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Bonin and Robert went on to encounter a bit of turbulence, with the former still talking about climbing to a higher altitude. However, when the latter saw a storm in front of them, he advised moving the aircraft to the left. By the end of that exchange, the autopilot followed their instructions.

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“[The plane] entered an area of heavier weather and the cockpit filled with the muted roar of ice crystals hitting the windscreen,” the Vanity Fair article went on. “Bonin dialed back the airplane’s speed by selecting .80 Mach. The automatic throttles responded by reducing the thrust. The angle of attack slightly increased. [And] the noise of the ice crystals continued.”

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At that point, Bonin and Robert faced a big problem. “Unbeknown to the pilots, the ice crystals began to accumulate inside the airplane’s three air-pressure probes, known as pitot tubes, which were mounted on the underside of the nose,” the magazine continued. “Just after 11:10 p.m., as a result of the blockage, all three of the cockpit’s airspeed indications failed.”

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The issues didn’t end there, though, as the altitude readings then glitched down by over 350 feet. Due to the lack of information regarding airspeed, the autopilot released control of the A330. But that wasn’t the only thing to be affected, with the automatic control system responding in kind.

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“[The fly-by-wire control system] reconfigured itself from Normal Law into a reduced regime called Alternate Law,” Vanity Fair magazine revealed. “[This] eliminated stall protection and changed the nature of roll control so, in this one sense, the A330 now handled like a conventional airplane.” Unfortunately, things only got worse from there.

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Indeed, Bonin took control of the plane via a stick in the cockpit, causing it to move from side to side. However, the co-pilot also jerked back on the controls, which saw the plane head into an altitude climb. As a result of that, both he and Robert soon heard an automated message saying that the plane would stall.

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Before long, Robert realized that the plane was gaining altitude, leading him to tell Bonin to ease off. At that point, the latter only needed to lower the A330 slightly to its original position, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he continued to jerk the control stick back, which caused the aircraft to shudder.

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As the confusion in the cockpit grew, the A330 reached 38,000 feet, at which point the stall came into effect. Due to that, the plane started to descend at an alarming rate. From there, Dubois eventually returned to the cockpit to find out what was going on, but neither Robert or Bonin had an answer.

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Unfortunately, the chaos didn’t cease upon Dubois’ reemergence in the cockpit, as the plane continued to descend rapidly. Within a few moments, Bonin saw that they were falling 15,000 feet per minute, but believed the reading was incorrect. Despite his disbelief, though, the A330’s altitude quickly dipped below 13,000 feet.

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While the three pilots tried their best to right the problem, nothing seemed to work, leading to a tragic conclusion. “Flight 447 then pancaked into the equatorial Atlantic,” Vanity Fair magazine explained. “The time in Rio was 11:14 p.m., three hours and 45 minutes into the flight, and four minutes and 20 seconds into the upset.”

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The wreckage was soon discovered by Brazil’s air force, but a subsequent search for survivors came up empty. In addition, the plane’s flight-data recorder was also missing, presumably somewhere among the debris. Despite that disadvantage, though, Pete Goelz, an ex-employee of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, made an interesting point.

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Noting that the pilots didn’t send out a call for help before the crash, Goelz ascertained that the problem was swift. “That really is an ominous sign,” he told CNN in June 2009. “It means, whatever happened, it happened so quickly that the pilots were not able to radio out. It probably indicates a catastrophic failure at altitude.”

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However, in 2011 a significant discovery was made, as the recorder was finally found. “It showed that by the last moment the airplane had turned 225 degrees off course,” read the Vanity Fair magazine piece. “And [it] was flying due west with its nose 16 degrees up and its wings nearly level.”

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“Thoroughly stalled, [the plane] was progressing at merely 107 knots, but with a descent rate, despite full thrust, of 11,000 feet per minute,” the publication continued. “The impact was shattering. Everyone aboard died instantly and the wreckage sank in deep water. In the small debris field soon found floating on the surface lay 50 bodies, including that of captain Marc Dubois.”

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During that period in 2011, another 104 bodies were discovered at the crash site, bringing the total number recovered up to 154. Unfortunately, though, the remaining passengers and crew couldn’t be found. As the search came to an end that summer, over 70 people were still unaccounted for.

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Since that fateful night in May 2009, the tragedy continues to hold two unwanted labels. Indeed, not only was it the most deadly crash in Air France’s history, but it was also the worst for the A330 model aircraft. Following the accident, the airline subsequently faced charges of manslaughter in March 2011 and legal proceeding are still ongoing.

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