On the last day of May in 2009, as night enveloped the airport in Rio de Janeiro, the 216 passengers waiting to board a flight to Paris could not have suspected that they would never see daylight again, or that many would sit strapped to their seats for another two years before being found dead in the darkness, 13,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. But that is what happened. Air France Flight 447 carried a crew of nine flight attendants and three pilots—their numbers augmented because of duty-time limitations on a 5,700-mile trip that was expected to last nearly 11 hours. These were highly trained people, flying an immaculate wide-bodied Airbus A330 for one of the premier airlines of the world, an iconic company of which all of France is proud. Even today—with the flight recorders recovered from the sea floor, French technical reports in hand, and exhaustive inquests under way in French courts—it remains almost unimaginable that the airplane crashed. A small glitch took Flight 447 down, a brief loss of airspeed indications—the merest blip of an information problem during steady straight-and-level flight. It seems absurd, but the pilots were overwhelmed.
An absolutely riveting read about the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009. I'm simultaneously devastated and enthralled by air flight disaster stories.
Much ink is spilled about self-driving cars, but in the meantime we've shifted into a self-flying world, and that means the airplane crashes that do occur are at the intersection of an old model of flying, completely human dependent, and a newer model of flying that is heavily reliant on computer flying. Also worth reading for an example of an area where user interface design is a matter of literal life and death, unlike that of most of what those of us in technology dabble in.
Despite all that, it's worth remembering that flying has never been safer.
The events of the past several months, punctuated by the losses of Malaysia Airlines flights 370 and 17, have given many people the idea that flying has become less safe. In fact it’s much safer than it used to be. There are twice as many planes in the air as there were 25 years ago, yet the rate of fatal accidents, per miles flown, has been steadily falling. The International Civil Aviation Organization reports that for every million flights, the chance of a crash is one-sixth what it was in 1980.
Globally, 2013 was the safest year in the history of modern commercial aviation. This year will be something of a correction, but we can’t expect every year to be the safest, and the overall trend shouldn’t be affected. If you think the past 12 months have been bad, go back to 1985, when 27 (!) serious aviation accidents killed almost 2,500 people. Two of history’s ten deadliest disasters happened that year, within two months of each other. The 60s, 70s and 80s were an era rife with horrific crashes, bombings, airport attacks and so on. Recent events notwithstanding, large-scale disasters have become a lot less frequent.
UPDATE (12 Nov 2014): Patrick Smith of Ask the Pilot fame disagrees with the author of the piece, William Langewiesche, that increased automation and declining human piloting skills were the key culprit in the crash.
As Langewiesche has it, the piloting profession doesn’t amount to much. At one point he writes of pilots: “All of them think they are better than they are.” I wonder if he’d make such a rude and cursory blanket statement about doctors or other professionals.
At that, at least, I was able to laugh out loud. The point where I had steam coming from my ears came a few pages later: “In professional flying, a historical shift has occurred,” writes Langewiesche near the end of the piece. “Pilots have been relegated to mundane roles as system managers, expected to monitor the computers and sometimes to enter data via keyboards, but to keep their hands off the controls, and to intervene only in the rare even to failure.”
That is about the most asinine and misleading characterization of an airline pilot’s job that I have ever read in my life.
Smith includes Langewiesche's response at the bottom of the post.