Air France Flight 447 Crash 'Didn't Have to Happen,' Expert Says


Air France Flight 447 from Rio to Paris

Air France Flight 447 was en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on May 31, 2009 on an overnight trip when it vanished. The plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in the early morning hours of June 1, 2009 -- nearly four hours after take-off.

As "Nightline" previously reported, black box tapes recovered from the wreckage in April 2011 revealed that almost four hours into the flight, the plane was 800 miles off the coast of Brazil, and Captain Marc Dubois left the cockpit for a scheduled nap. At the time, the plane was about to fly into a thunderstorm, one that other flights that night had steered around.

According to the tapes, First Officer Cedric Bonin, a 32-year-old pilot who had fewer than 5,000 flight hours under his belt, was at the controls but had never been in this situation before at high-altitude. Bonin made the fatal mistake of pulling the plane's nose up, which caused it to go into a deep stall.

As Flight 447 went deeper into its catastrophic stall, the stall alarm cut in and out intermittently, the black box tapes revealed. Airbus had previously claimed the stall alarm on Flight 447 "was performing as designed," but critics charged the pilots would have been confused by the mixed signals.

It was not until the final three seconds before the plane hit the Atlantic that the pilots even realized they were going to crash, the black box tapes revealed.

VIDEO: What It Was Like in the Flight 447 Cockpit

About 180 victims' family members have sued Air France and Airbus over the crash. The family of one of the victims, Eithna Walls, has settled its lawsuit.

The A330, considered among the safest in the skies, has flown over 800 million passengers across the world and there are 865 planes in operation today, according to Airbus's website. But in modern aviation, large commercial jets almost fly themselves. Voss said that on any given flight, pilots are manually flying the plane for only three minutes -- one minute and 30 seconds each for take-off and landing.

"The fact is there aren't many opportunities for a pilot to hand fly the aircraft anymore," he said. "The truth is it's only a few minutes during each flight, maybe until they climb up to altitude. Many airplanes don't even allow the hand flying for that long."

At the heart of the heated debate over so-called "automation addiction," which is when pilots are overly dependent on computers to fly their planes, is the question of whether pilots are actually learning how to properly fly large commercial aircraft.

"Because of this sophistication and the ability of airplane to fly themselves, they don't have as many people to actually fly the airplane, to actually exercise their stick and rudder capabilities," Bill Bozin, the vice president of safety and technical affairs at Airbus, told "Nightline" in June.

In the wake of the Air France crash, Voss said "many airlines" were retraining their pilots on flying manually, but that much more needs to be done to overhaul pilot training programs around the world.

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"I think there's a training gap that still exists," he said. "There have been hundreds of incremental changes to the way we fly aircraft but there haven't been any changes in the training program that reflect that."

"The fact is aircraft are going to become more automated," Voss added. "There's no way to even tell how many lives have been saved by the automation that are in aircraft. So it's a good thing and it's going to continue to progress. What we have to continue to do is keep the human side up to speed with what the automation is doing."

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