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Computer Failures Are Probed in Jet Crash

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diver with debris from Air France Flight 447

In a photo from Brazil's navy, a diver stands on a piece of debris from Air France Flight 447. Physical evidence recovered from the crash indicates that the plane was operating without the full protection of its flight-control systems.

Credit: The Associated Press

Aviation investigators looking for a cause of the June 1 crash of Air France Flight 447 believe that a rapid chain of computer and equipment failures may have stripped the flight crew of the airplane's automation technology, which pilots generally rely on to control large jets. The possible scenario behind the jet's crash starts with malfunctioning airspeed sensors and rapidly evolves to what appears to be widespread computer failures, according to people familiar with the investigation.

The initial physical evidence recovered from the crash, and automatic maintenance messages sent by the aircraft, indicates that the plane bucked through heavy turbulence caused by a thunderstorm, without the full protection of its flight-control systems, which experts say many pilots now take for granted. Investigators believe the pilots, having only backup instruments, had difficulty restarting flight-management computers and the plane may have started breaking up due to excessive speed. The investigators stress that it is too early to determine any specific causes.

Regardless of the final findings, the crash is already prompting some flight safety experts to question whether pilots are trained enough to handle widespread flight-computer failures. Most modern jetliners are essentially completely automatic, and pilots generally just monitor instruments and rarely interfere with controls. If computer failures occur in today's increasingly computerized jetliners, many safety experts question how proficient most crews will be in trying to rely on less high-tech backup systems.

From The Wall Street Journal
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