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Understanding Air France 447 by Bill Palmer

Cet article est un hommage et de mémoire des passagers à bord Air France vol 447.  Les âmes doivent les ailes d'anges pour nous aider dans la poursuite de rendre le ciel plus sûr .  

This article is in memory of those souls which perished on board Air France 447.  May their souls grow the wings of angels which will help guide us in pursuit to make the skies safer.

Este artigo está na memória daquelas almas que morreram a bordo 447 da Air France. Que suas almas crescer as asas dos anjos que irá ajudar a guiar-nos em busca de fazer os céus mais seguros.

Bill Palmer


Looking into the eye's of the passenger profile photos of some of those on board after having read this book, I could never begin to understand what was going through their minds during their final thoughts and moments alive on aboard Air France flight 447.

A 26 year old doctor from Ireland, an 11 year old student from the United Kingdom, 29 year old Brazilian Singer who was traveling back to Germany to sing in a production of "Wicked", a 26 year old Brazilian prince, a Brazilian-Italian opera composer and conductor.  One of the flight attendants on board, flew back to Brazil two weeks earlier to bury his father.  One of the parents of a passenger had a "funny feeling" about the flight having had a dream the previous night about a "coffin surrounded by water."  Artists, doctors, professionals, honeymooners, and students alike were on board.  Just as any other flight.

I, along with many other people globe wide were flabbergasted upon hearing the news on June 1st, 2009 that one of the world's most renown international carriers (which I personally admire very much) with one of the most state-of-the-art aircraft went missing.  I was saddened when its discovery came about 300 miles off the Brazilian coast as I had recently taken a trans-Atlantic flight with Air France right before that tragic night.  To cross the thought in my mind, "It could have been my flight" would have been an understatement being that the carrier was the same.  This could have been anyone's flight at any time on any airline going to any destination.  It still could, God forbid, be someone's flight.  That is, if we do not learn the lesson, and learn it and implement it immediately while we still have the chance before it is too late yet once again.  Let's hope and pray that this will never be the case again.

Upon learning that A330 Captain and subject matter expert Captain Bill Palmer wrote "Understanding Air France 447", I immediately put it on my reading list as I had viewed documentaries, read articles, which to my humble understanding, felt were not giving a full and accurate picture of the behind-the-scenes events that unfolded during the critical moments between life and death.

"Just as the ice crystals accumulated in the pitot-static tubes, they spread across my spine."

After having read the well written forward by Rob Mark, ATP rated pilot and fellow blogger at as well as the introduction, I proceeded to read one of the most chilling chapters of the book, the "Chronology."  Reading through the conversations between First Officers David Robert and Pierre-Cédric Bonin and then eventually when 58 year old Captain Marc Dubois, many thoughts crossed my mind as Captain Palmer recounted the events step-by-step.  Once they encountered the storm, ice crystals developed in the pitot-static probes which failed to send pertinent data to the aircraft's systems.  Just as the ice crystals accumulated in the pitot-static tubes, they spread across my spine the more I continued to read further the dialogue and events.  Even more so, what the reactions of the pilot's were and their attempt to recover the stalled aircraft at such a high altitude.  What is even more scary, is that I was not watching a scary movie.  This was a real life event that occurred and could happen on any flight no matter what location.  The author truly had me sitting in the jumpseat of this flight witnessing everything that was going on.

Palmer also goes into detail the actions that First Officers Bonin, the pilot in command and Robert took to attempt to rectify the situation.  He goes through the various stages, (flight control laws), or states of protection and how the A330 went from Normal Law to Alternate 2 Law.  The inputs, or "DUAL INPUT" as the audio announces when both FOs were trying to get the airplane under control with their own respective side-stick inputs.
Also, explained in detail are the breakdowns in communications between the flight and various control centers across the Atlantic (Atlantico) and Dakar Control center using HF (shortwave) radio using SELCAL (selective call.)  At 01:34 The crew of AFR447 did make a successful SELCAL check with Atlantico over waypoint TASIL.

St. Elmo's Fire

Traversing through the ITCZ (Inter-tropical Convergence Zone) is also thoroughly explained by Captain Palmer as the flight made it's way through that area of constantly developing weather and thunderstorms which developed by global circulation patterns with warm moist air coming from the equator.  The crew did fly into this system with little deviation from its course as some of the other flights did that night.  Captain Palmer also explains the concept of "St. Elmo's Fire" a "hazy glowing ball" on the ice probe that protrudes forward between the windshields creating quite a light show.  This ice probe is located between the windshields and is used to detect ice being that it's difficult on other parts of the air frame.

"J'ai les commandes"
I have the controls..

Captain Palmer explains that due to the marvel of the "fly-by-wire" systems, the automation provides excellent protection from inadvertent stalling and exceeding the flight envelope.  The area that was put to the test was the fact that they entered into a high altitude stall in the ITCZ region in a thunderstorm and the immense inputs that were into the plane which made with thrust and side-stick for this stall recovery.  What you will read as a result, will send your mind wondering for itself.

When automation dependency is in full effect and the automation is lost, not provoked by the pilot in command, then there is only one option left - to fly the plane.  First Officer Bonin was put into this position when this occurred.  Not only were the pilots on board put to this test but also coupled with the fact that their minds put to the test.  It's one thing to state "I have the controls" (in a physical sense) but it is a totally different ballpark to state that same phrase in the mental sense that the pilot's mind is inadequately trained in this new situation and under prepared to troubleshoot - especially on a well rested mindset - despite their intentions and willingness to carry on their duties.  The two thoughts that these pilots were flying long haul international routes and the fact that they were on a layover in an exotic destination were reasons in my mind that their fatigue was pretty substantial despite what investigation reports indicated - not to mention reading their actions throughout the book.

"Faire du ciel le plus bel endoit de la terre."
"Faire", the verb infinitive which which begins the former credo of Air France above, has a dual translation.  Depending on context, not only does it mean "to make", it also means "to do (something)"

So... how does this duel translation come into context of this review and why extactly am I mentioning it?

"The Human Factor" played a most critical role in this situation.  Not only were the investigations of this incident thereafter important, but what is even more important are the investigations and into how this will hopefully never happen again.  Investigations into pilot fatigue, investigations on how training programs or the lack thereof will implement additional programs for those instructors who are training line pilots. Specialty in training for CRM (Crew Resource Management) and TEM (Threat & Error Management) are most necessary as well.  After reading this book, I was also thinking in my personal, humble opinion that special training should be  greatly implemented for instructors and pilots alike for special terrain and atmospheric areas of the globe -  (i.e., transport pilots that fly trans-polar and trans-equatorial routes) and how to recover from various scenarios in these regions, specifically high altitude stalls due to loss of data and automation.  It is my hope that these are on their way to be in effect  in a very timely fashion, or well there, already.

Further more, I would like to personally thank Captain Bill Palmer for an excellent explanation and education for myself on the Airbus (A330) interface, the events that went on behind the scenes, and for the wealth of information that he has provided not only for this topic but others.  It is my hope that everyone will purchase this work and read it to detail.  (Noting the many creased pages with highlighted statements on many of them.)  This literature should be a required reading for all pilots no matter what rank: student, sport, private, instructor, commercial, transport, or line instructor/check airman.  It is our imperative that we do everything we can to ensure safety for both the industry but also for those souls we carry that we make a vow to carry as if they are our own loved ones and making it enjoyable for all parties in the process.

With these initiatives to put safety cultures, CRMs, TEMs, safety plans mentioned above in place, we can "do" something about 'making' the sky the best place on Earth."

Jeremy Carlisle


  1. Jeremy, thanks for a great post. Bill's book is an eye-opener for those who want to know what happened.Very well written with detail explanation of the inside workings of the A330. But the eye-opener in your post are the people. We call them passengers, and the missing. But unless we are connected to them and know who they are, they are just bodies distant and not real. I only imagined who they were, and you brought them to life. Somewhat like Kathryn felt looking at Sandra's photo. Once you have a look at the smile, and know who they are the pain increases. So many lives lost. In memory of for sure. Thank you for not allowing them to disappear from our hearts.

  2. Karlene, you hit the nail right on the head. It was one thing to read about the technical aspect of it. Another, was my research on who was on board the flight. The YouTube video which is linked multiple times in the post was yet another eye opener. The video was like how you depticed in "Flight For Control" where Kathryn was sitting at the table with the faces of crash staring at here that were knowing the story yet unwilling to tell. To many, they are just bodies. If you are a pilot, they are real human beings, each one with a special story to tell. That is why I commend those pilots who hang outside the flight deck and connect. Not because one gets paid for it, but because the pilot is a giver of many things - not just a flight experience. I commend you for being one of these pilots. Spreading the message of not only safety but also the experience that flying should be. Many of our greatest pilots and crew come from flying lobster tails.

    Thank you for stopping by and for your great comment. I will be by to visit shortly ;)


  3. I don't get what you meant by "exotic destination", Air France has been travelling to Rio for decades and its one of its most sucessfull flights. Rio is just a big city like any other big city in the world. With that said, thanks for the great post.

    1. Marc, by "exotic destination" I am implying of a popular (tourist) destination with a high market and yes, a successful one. An interesting question I have is how often did the pilots fly this city pair? Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment.


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