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The Outrage of Air France 447 Crash

06.17.09 | Permalink | 6 Comments

When Air France flight 447 was reported missing, news reports blamed storms over the Atlantic. As a frequent traveler, this didn’t make sense to me. Then reports started coming out blaming the pitot tubes that measure an airplane’s speed. It turns out that both Airbus and Air France already knew of problems with the pitot tubes and were in the process of replacing them.

Airbus A330My outrage is this: why wasn’t GPS technology used to determine the airspeed? The on-board computer could have compared a calculated speed using GPS data to the speed readings from the pitot tubes, and automatically warned the pilot. The Airbus A330 has state of the art avionics including GPS according to their site. If free or really inexpensive iPhone apps like V-Cockpit GPS and MotionX-GPS can tell Jane and Joe how fast they are going, why can’t Airbus do so?

Further, why hasn’t America’s FAA or Europe’s EASA aviation authorities required that GPS information be used as a backup to pitot tubes? Commercial airplanes have several pitot tubes for redundancy. But if one stops working due to freezing weather over the Atlantic, then all of them are likely to stop working for the same reason. An airplane would need an alternate method of measuring speed, not more tubes. It is a crying shame that a proven technology like GPS was not used.

We programmers are used to being blamed for failures. Sometimes the blame is well deserved, like the spectacular explosion of the Ariane 5 rocket (see video). Other times, the fault is with management, like the failure of the FBI’s $170 million Virtual Case File (VCF) project. In this case, our profession could have easily saved 228 lives and hundreds of millions of euros.

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