The Airbus A330 has one of the most sophisticated automated piloting systems in the airline industry, but the passenger jet has been at the center of controversy over adequate pilot training in this new era of automated flight since the fatal crash of Air France Flight 447.
The 2009 crash, which killed all 228 passengers and crew on board, is considered one of the worst aviation disasters in modern history. One of the theories for what caused that Airbus A330 to go down is that the flight crew, led by 58-year-old Captain Marc Dubois, was inexperienced and depended too heavily on the plane's automated system.
"Airbus is proud of the fact, they like to say that their plane is pilot-proof,' said James Healy Pratt, TITLE. "It's designed so that it overrides any pilot error so that the computer will be in charge."
The Airbus A330, considered among the safest in the skies, carries roughly 500,000 passengers across the world every day. But in modern aviation, these planes almost fly themselves. Brian Voss, the president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, said that on any given flight, pilots are manually manipulating the controls for only three minutes -- one minute and 30 seconds each for take-off and landing.
"We moving towards automated operations where the pilot isn't even permitted to fly," Voss said. "That means the first time in your career you will ever feel what an aircraft feels like at 35,000 feet is when it's handed to you broken."
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 whether pilots are learning how to properly fly jumbo jets. Air France Flight 447 was en route from Rio de Janiero to Paris on May 31, 2009, for a 9-hour overnight trip, when it vanished, without warning, three and a half hours into the flight and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in the early morning hours of June 1, 2009.
Black box tapes recovered from the wreckage in April 2011 revealed that when the plane flew into a severe thunderstorm, its pitot tube, a critical piece of equipment that tells the pilot how fast the plane is going, failed, likely from ice crystals forming on it. When the pitot tube fails, the Airbus's automatic pilot system disengages, shifting control back to the pilot.
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. Bonin made the fatal mistake of pulling the plane's nose up, which caused it to stall.
It's 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.
BEA, the French authority that conducts investigations into aviation accidents or incidents, did not originally release that part of the tape, it was later leaked.
BEA director Jean-Paul Troadec said the agency withheld the tape from the public because it contained "personal conversations that is not useful to understand the accident."
But this decision led many people, including the victims' families, to suspect that the BEA was not telling the whole story. The agency will release its final report on the investigation of the crash on July 5, 2012.