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Investigators Suspect Computers Doomed Air France Jet

timothy posted more than 5 years ago | from the scary-thought dept.

Bug 403

DesScorp writes "Investigators working with the wreckage of Air France flight 447 believe the aircraft suffered cascading system failures with the on-board computers, eliminating the automation the aircraft needed to stay aloft. 'Relying on backup instruments, the Air France pilots apparently struggled to restart flight-management computers even as their plane may have begun breaking up from excessive speed,' reports the Wall Street Journal. Computer malfunctions may not be an isolated incident on the Airbus A330, as the NTSB is now investigating two other flights 'in which airspeed and altitude indications in the cockpits of Airbus A330 aircraft may have malfunctioned.'"

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Moral of the story... (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28502783)

...Don't trust Windows with your life.

Re:Moral of the story... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28502787)

And that's why I always go for the isle seat. :)

Re:Moral of the story... (1)

Thundarr Trollgrim (847077) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503253)

I'm not entirely sure what islands have to do with this.

running windows were they (0, Redundant)

CHRONOSS2008 (1226498) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503523)

/.

Suspect?.... (2, Interesting)

Bob_Who (926234) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502799)

I dunno, the NTSB usually drags their feet before stating anything. They usually don't make statements about suspicion of what may have happened without specific evidence. This seems like an unusual announcement from them, not their usual style. I wonder if they are compelled to state a truth that they fell won't be properly addressed otherwise. After all, Airbus is built in Europe not the US.

Re:Suspect?.... (4, Insightful)

johannesg (664142) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502865)

I dunno, the NTSB usually drags their feet before stating anything. They usually don't make statements about suspicion of what may have happened without specific evidence. This seems like an unusual announcement from them, not their usual style. I wonder if they are compelled to state a truth that they fell won't be properly addressed otherwise. After all, Airbus is built in Europe not the US.

Personally I wonder if they were compelled to state a suspicion that might otherwise not benefit business interests in the US. After all, Boeing is built in the US not Europe.

See how these stupid slurs work in both directions?

Re:Suspect?.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503047)

I'm in include to believe it serves US business and interests for the NTSB to make an announcement on this issue.

Re:Suspect?.... (5, Informative)

UnknowingFool (672806) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503153)

I think you both are thinking of the FAA. The whole purpose of the NTSB is to research and investigate civil transportation accidents. They then present their conclusions and recommendations to the regulating authority in that industry. For the airline industry, the FAA then has to implement any recommendations. For the most part, the FAA does not always implement all the recommendations due to cost, business concerns, practicality, national concerns, politics, etc.

In this case, the black boxes have not been recovered and it might be very difficult to pinpoint a cause without them. But the NTSB knows of similar cases that may have occurred in the US that did not lead to accidents. If there job wasn't to ensure that the fleet of aircraft in the US is safe, they may just sit on their asses and do nothing. But it is their job to ensure safety so they will investigate whether this might have led a situation similar to the Air France flight. They will probably share their data with Air France, the Brazilian authorities, Airbus, the FAA, etc when the investigation is concluded.

Re:Suspect?.... (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503217)

The NTSB is the national transportation safety board. The criticism isn't that they shouldn't share their conclusions, it's that they may be politically/economically motivated to "share" mere suspicions which are detrimental to a foreign aircraft manufacturer.

Re:Suspect?.... (1, Insightful)

UnknowingFool (672806) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503377)

Your insinuation that NTSB is investigating for the sake of politics to damage a foreign manufacturer is ludicrous. Their job is to investigate any safety issues. Since this model of Airbus flies in and out of the US every day, their job should be to investigate any concerns especially since the blackboxes have not been recovered and may not be recovered. The root cause of this crash may not easily be known. They know of two flights where similar computer issues may have occurred. They will investigate whether these computer glitches were one-time occurrences and what impact they may have had to the Air France flight. The NTSB investigates these non-accidents for many different industries all the time. This is not new. Most of the time they work with the airline and aircraft manufacturer in accidents and non-accidents to determine root causes. For the most part, the NTSB doesn't give a damn about how their conclusions affect an airline, an airline manufacturer, etc. They just investigate and report which is what you want in an investigative body.

Re:Suspect?.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503263)

BUT, this was a Airbus plane NOT a Boeing. So I'm not sure that this was meant as a " stupid slur", though I'm sure thats the way YOU meant it!!

Re:Suspect?.... (2, Insightful)

MACC (21597) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503345)

Good observation.

The NTSB made an unexpected announcement on the B777 crash in LHR due probably to ice slurrie
in the fuel with uncalled for blame shifting just before the primary investigators in the UK
did their public announcement.

The NTSB going for partisan announcements is a very bad sign directly connected to
Boeing being in dire straits these days. So any published findings of the NTSB
may be completely worthless.

G!
MACC

Re:Suspect?.... (3, Informative)

dhovis (303725) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503351)

Actually, the NTSB should be involved in this investigation. I think you can get up to 5 organizations joining to investigate a crash.
1) Country of Origin (Brazil)
2) Country of Destination (France)
3) Country of Carrier (France)
4) Country of Airframe Manufacturer (France/Germany/EU)
5) Country of Engine Manufacturer (US)

Notice that #5 was US. The engines on the plane in question were GE.

Re:Suspect?.... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503373)

The articles are pure FUD, and the summary is worse. The A330 doesn't need computers to "stay aloft" any more than your PSU needs an OS to power your motherboard. The rest of the functionality is pure gravy.

All these hysterical articles about computer failures always forget that the computers are a BONUS, and it is quite frankly becoming less and less insane to start believing in anti-Europe propaganda. It may indeed be true that pilots are becoming too accustomed to their presence, but in the meantime their high uptime has saved more lives from pilot error than the resulting complacency will ever cost.

This case is especially ridiculous, because modern computer controlled aircraft will actually handle sensor failures BETTER than ones without them. Had the Air France plane had the most up to date equipment, the computers would have used other sensors to estimate a safe range of approximate speeds and provided the pilots with a fast/slow indicator. It's even possible that this is exactly what happened, but something else went wrong.

Even if the computers just shut themselves down, it was still the sensor info that was invalid, so how would a plane without computers have fared any better?

It's also complete bullshit to say that the pilots can't override the computers. In normal flight, the computers *aid* the pilots. For example, avoiding a collision is easier in an Airbus, because pilots can just pull the stick back hard and the computers will automatically give the best possible climb performance, closer to the stall speed than a Boeing pilot would ever dare to go. Meanwhile, the pilot can look out the window instead of at an instrument panel!

This is what happened with the "infamous" crash into the forest. The pilot was too low and slow, and when he did pull up, the aircraft didn't "let him" because even maximum performance wasn't enough and the plane would have dropped like a stone had it been a Boeing. The computers probably saved everyone who did walk away from that crash!

IF the computers actually malfunction, they will turn themselves off. If they don't, the pilots can turn them off manually.

Re:Suspect?.... (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503533)

and shut them down they did.

the actions of the computer made the plane unable to continue flying.

you are a clone of arrogant prick programmers who make dumb-ass choices every day.

your logic defies common sense, get out of rationalization and into reality!

Re:Suspect?.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28502869)

Makes you wonder if they would have been as trigger-happy with their suspicions if it had been a Boeing plane.

Re:Suspect?.... (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28502909)

You're not in the hands of a drunkard pilot, you're in the hands of a computer that knows no stress, no fear, doesn't get sleepy, never get bored and has reaction times infinitely smaller than humans.

Re:Suspect?.... (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503275)

But can't land your plane in a river if it'll save your life.

Re:Suspect?.... (1)

sphealey (2855) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503271)

> I dunno, the NTSB usually drags their feet before stating anything.
> They usually don't make statements about suspicion of what may have
> happened without specific evidence.

The United States' NTSB conducts extremely thorough and detailed investigations, with careful intermediate releases of information and preliminary conclusions prior to the issuance of a complete final report. It very deliberately does not leap to conclusions since first impressions and quick conclusions are often wrong. It makes mistakes, as all human institutions do, but it is the best technical investigation resource we have.

All of which is a bit beside the point, since the primary investigative agency in this incident is the French aviation authority with some parts of the investigation being conducted by the Brazilian authority. The US NTSB and FAA are observing, but have no investigatory role in this case.

sPh

Holy shit! (0, Redundant)

Jurily (900488) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502805)

A bug in software! This is like the article about how RMS has the same opinion he had a month ago.

Re:Holy shit! (1)

NotFamousYet (937650) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502873)

We're talking about a death toll in the hundreds of people, significantly higher than your average terrorist attack, and the loss of a multi-million dollar craft. This is not your average bug.

Re:Holy shit! (1)

Jurily (900488) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502925)

Less than an average day on the road.

Re:Holy shit! (1)

maeka (518272) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503211)

Less than an average day on the road.

Wordwide? Sure.
In the USA? Nope. (Not that such a simplistic comparison means anything, but at least let us talk about honest facts.)
http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx [dot.gov]

Re:Holy shit! (1)

PopeRatzo (965947) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502961)

Investigators Suspect Computers Doomed Air France Jet

We've had some crazy scare-mongering headlines here before, but this one is definitely up there with the best.

It makes me think "I, Robot" or three evil islamonaziliberal Apple IIs gaining sentience.

Maybe "software causes crash" or "automated systems cause crash" but "computers doomed jet"?

well that's terrifying (0, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28502817)

You're not in the hands of a skilled pilot, you're in the hands of a programmer.

I assume these kinds of modern planes can't even fly without a computer anymore.

Re:well that's terrifying (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503025)

Not just a programmer, but an engineer "programmer". Engineers can't write software for shit but for some reason they all think they can.

Too Soon? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28502821)

Tag BSOD. :/

Automation (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28502855)

"The fancier they make the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain." -Scotty

Re:Automation (2, Interesting)

Thelasko (1196535) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503415)

"The fancier they make the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain." -Scotty

An excellent quote, but it doesn't really the problem. For years, aircraft manufacturers have had a philosophical debate over who should be in ultimate control of the aircraft. Boeing says that the pilot should be in direct control of the aircraft, and the computer should assist the pilot. However, many NTSB reports conclude with "pilot error" as the cause of accidents. Therefore, Airbus puts the computer in direct control and the pilot directs the computer on what to do. This was a controversial move, but until now has worked well for Airbus. Other [wikipedia.org] aircraft [wikipedia.org] haven't been so fortunate.

Re:Automation (1)

mrcaseyj (902945) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503545)

It is claimed that although on Airbus aircraft the computer usually prevents the pilot from doing anything stupid, the pilots can still override the computers if necessary. And furthermore, Boeing has apparently adopted similar computer controls as well.

GPS-based air speed (2)

dr_tube (115121) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502893)

Why can't they use a battery-operated GPS-based measure of airspeed as a backup and as a check against the pitot tube-based measurements? Surely it would not be very accurate, but I would think it could be accurate enough for the pilots to know the plane was going too fast and not too slow.

Re:GPS-based air speed (5, Insightful)

YrWrstNtmr (564987) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502939)

Why can't they use a battery-operated GPS-based measure of airspeed as a backup

Because GPS knows nothing about *airspeed*.
A GPS recorded speed of 100mph, into a 50mph headwind = 150 mph airspeed.

Re:GPS-based air speed (1)

Lifyre (960576) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503041)

+ Insightful

However GP said it wouldn't be accurate, just accurate enough. How high do windspeeds get in safe flying weather (assume a headwind) and would that plus whatever error there is in the gps (probably fairly small) be too much for a go/no go system?

Re:GPS-based air speed (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503125)

It is possible that you are at stall speed and moving several hundreds of km per hour in relation to the ground according to your GPS.

The winds are very strong higher up and if you're in a tail wind, the above scenario is very possible.

Re:GPS-based air speed (1)

Lifyre (960576) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503387)

Wow. I would have guessed that in or near a storm system but not in nicer weather. Thanks for the knowledge.

Re:GPS-based air speed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503343)

How high do windspeeds get in safe flying weather (assume a headwind)

Well, a 4000 mile transatlantic flight is often 7 hours one way and 8 hours the other. You do the math.

Re:GPS-based air speed (1)

thogard (43403) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503445)

The inertial nav system all ready has those numbers and might even have a good idea of the last known wind speed.

The problem is that at high cruise the stall speed and the Vne (Never Exceed) can be very close as in two digits in km/hr and hte Va (speed to cruse when you hit turbulence) is within single digits of the stall speed.

Re:GPS-based air speed (3, Informative)

digitalchinky (650880) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503477)

The problem largely is that the difference between airspeed and ground speed can mean the difference between supersonic airflow over the airframe, or not enough to maintain flight. At cruising altitude (FL300 and above) you don't have a very large speed differential between these two danger areas, so windshear is something you want to avoid. (i.e. Thunderstorms)

Your question about wind speed is a little difficult to answer, it would depend on the aircraft type, but then it also depends upon what you are doing in the aircraft too, straight and level, in a turn, high g, and so on, so there are a whole host of factors to consider.

Re:GPS-based air speed (-1)

MollyB (162595) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503109)

A GPS recorded speed of 100mph, into a 50mph headwind = 150 mph airspeed.

Have you thought this out? Why would flying into a headwind speed up the plane?
Just sayin'...

Re:GPS-based air speed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503139)

Because maybe you have to fly faster into a headwind to maintain a ground speed?

Re:GPS-based air speed (2, Informative)

Rattenhirn (1416947) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503143)

Have you thought this out? Why would flying into a headwind speed up the plane? Just sayin'...

It doesn't speed up, it just faces as much air resistance as it would face flying 150 mph with no wind. That's a quite significant value if you want to figure out if your plane is going to break apart or not...

Re:GPS-based air speed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503249)

Air resistance is not what is important with airspeed. The lift you get or don't get from the air relative to the plane is.

Re:GPS-based air speed (5, Informative)

Rich0 (548339) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503479)

Both are important.

Too little airspeed = too little lift and a stall (which is very dangerous on something as big as an airliner, though theoretically recoverable at that altitude granted you'll waste quite a bit of fuel and scare the living daylights out of the passengers).

Too much airspeed = shock waves rip the wings right off the plane. They're not fighters and while those wings actually are pretty strong they can only make them so heavy and be able to carry payload.

Re:GPS-based air speed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503147)

It doesn't speed up the plane, it speeds up the *air*speed.

  In other words, the speed of air relative to the plane. Which determines little things like the lift you're getting or not getting.

Re:GPS-based air speed (-1, Offtopic)

netsharc (195805) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503163)

Rotsky [freewebs.com] !

Re:GPS-based air speed (3, Informative)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503165)

A GPS recorded speed of 100mph, into a 50mph headwind = 150 mph airspeed.

Have you thought this out? Why would flying into a headwind speed up the plane? Just sayin'...

Lets say the pilot wants to fly at 500 knots AIS (Indicated Air Speed). They set ground speed to 500 knots with GPS but the air is going the other way to 100 knots. Airspeed is now 600 knots.

Re:GPS-based air speed (2, Informative)

Rich0 (548339) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503507)

To confuse things further - you're not actually using indicated airspeed but true airspeed. :)

The indicated airspeed at those altitudes is often on the order of 300 knots when the plane is really travelling around 500 knots relative to the air and 600 relative to the ground.

Put it this way - in space if you're travelling at mach 20-30 the airspeed indicator would probably read zero. When you hit an air molecule you're moving very fast relative to it, but so few hit the sensor that it reads zero. Anywhere in-between space and sea level the gauge acts accordingly...

Re:GPS-based air speed (5, Informative)

rrossman2 (844318) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503183)

it doesn't speed up the plane... but the plane is moving 150 mph compared to the air. That's air speed.

Let's reverse it.. A plane must travel so fast to stay in the air.. let's say 130mph to keep things sane. So if you have a plane flying at 140mph with no wind any direction, the plane will stay up. That same plane could slow to 125mph with a 15mph headwind, and still stay up since in effect the plane is "traveling" at 140mph. Now if there was a TAIL wind of 15mph while the plane was flying at 125mph, the effective speed of the plane would only be 110mph and it wouldn't be able to stay up, it would stall.

Re:GPS-based air speed (2, Insightful)

darthflo (1095225) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503257)

To go for the car analogy:

Imagine a (large) conveyor 100 miles long, stable enough for you to drive on in your car. Now drive from it's start to it's end in one hour. The distance you traveled is 100 miles, right?

Now imagine that conveyor moving in the opposite direction (i.e. towards you) at 50 mph. To still get from your starting point to your destination in an hour, you're doing 150 mph road speed. The GPS will still report 100 mph, but your car's tachymetre will report 150 mph, the wheels will revolve as is necessary to go 150 mph and, if you add 50 mph of headwind, even the air resistance will be equal to doing 150 mph without wind.

In an environment where the you need to stay in a 10 mph zone in order to avoid either stalling, rapid descent, crash, death if going too slow or plane breaking apart in mid-air, rapid descent, crash, death; it's quite helpful to know an accurate measurement. It's like Speed, except the bomb will blow up when your axle speed drops below 145 and the bus will spontaneously disintegrate at 155. Also, there's varying levels of wind. Also, you're driving on slicks. Through some kind of rally track half of which is concrete, the other half sand/dirt and the other half is jell-o.

Re:GPS-based air speed (1)

yabos (719499) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503261)

It doesn't speed up the plane. The GP is assuming that the plane can cruise at or above 150 MPH. The GPS coordinates tell you where you are on the earth. If the GPS coordinates are such that you have a 100 MPH ground speed, and the air you are flying into is going 50 MPH relative to the ground, then your air speed will be 50 MPH higher than the ground speed.

In fact, in a small plane, sometimes it's possible to fly above the stall speed into the wind but not move at all relative to the ground.

Re:GPS-based air speed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503201)

Because GPS knows nothing about *airspeed*.
A GPS recorded speed of 100mph, into a 50mph headwind = 150 mph airspeed.

...and conversely a 50mph tailwind would only equal a 50mph airspeed. That is a 100mph variance based solely on the plane's direction.

Short version: (1, Interesting)

nutshell42 (557890) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502901)

It's like with users and computers. Instead of teaching people how a computer works and how you interact with one, they learn the exact sequence of steps they have to follow to make something happen.

That works fine when everything's okay, when not, they click yes to "do you want to format your hard drive" because they always click yes on those little window with buttons thingies. Then they call IT who has to get the backups. Oh wait, that's where flying a commercial airliner is unlike a PEBKAC.

Airlines aren't interested in the best pilots money can buy. They want the cheapest pilots that are allowed to fly.

Re:Short version: (4, Insightful)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503081)

Yes, because what we really need is pilots who can program in assembly while rewiring the control panel with their toes. Blindfolded. At mach 15.

You've watched one too many holywood flicks. If your computers crap out while airborne, you don't have time to troubleshoot and diagnose. You just follow the preset procedures, and hope that one of them works before you hit the ground.

Re:Short version: (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503289)

That low flying object that just barely went by over your head was the point nutshell42 was making. Here is a hint, he wasn't advocating for more IT in the cockpit...

Re:Short version: (0)

nutshell42 (557890) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503435)

Who says they should be able to program assembler? It was an analogy. Too many pilots nowadays have real trouble flying a plane when the autopilot craps out (which tends to be in rather unfavorable conditions).

Re:Short version: (2, Funny)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503497)

I think you meant "flight computer" rather than autopilot. But yeah, I hear ya. Also, WAY too many drivers these days have problems operating their car when the throttle sensor craps out, the brake-lines bleed dry, and the steering wheel snaps off.

Now Fred Flinstone ... THERE was a REAL driver! Ah, how I long for the Good Old Days ....

I accidentally the whole airbus. (0)

JumperCable (673155) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502919)

I this is true, I bet the software testers feel bad.

Unintended effects (2, Interesting)

dangle (1381879) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502923)

It would be ironic if the flight computers contributed to the accident, given the focus on designing them to prevent humans from contributing to accidents. Interesting video showing an A320 "refusing" to be crashed: At about 3 minutes, the software prevents roll beyond 67 degrees. At about 4:30, an attempt is made to stall the aircraft, at which time the software overrides the throttle settings. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO5l6_d6yck [youtube.com] [youtube.com]

Re:Unintended effects (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503243)

Ironic - sure. Personally I'll wait for the final report.

But looking at safety statistics it seems those systems, at the least, don't make things worse, overall. And in the long term they might only become better (systems improving, tricking down to smaller and smaller planes)

Also, those rumors might have something to do with litigation craze in some parts of the world. It's much more convenient to allow 100 accidents due due to "unfortunate circumstances/force majeure" (harder to point out the blame...or the guilty are dead) than to prevent 99 and have one caused by obvious computer/manufacturer error...where participants were totally helpless.

Re:Unintended effects (4, Interesting)

Tanktalus (794810) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503311)

Nah. This is all about designing to handle faults you can imagine, and failing to handle faults you can't. Imagining roll-over or stalls are easy. Imagining everything that could go wrong in a wind storm, probably not so much.

Two things (4, Interesting)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502927)

First, the article is mainly about whether the breakup was ultimately caused by over-reliance on automation leaving pilots insufficiently equipped to handle emergencies in manual mode. This business of excessive automation is getting general. As a simple example, my car has front and rear parking sensors. The other day I was parking in a tight space when suddenly I remembered I was in someone else's car, just a few inches from a steel barrier. My parking habits are now quite conditioned to the bleep patterns from front and rear, and switching back to manual mode slowed me right down. On the other hand, I can moor my boat, entirely by eye and feel, in a fifteen-knot sidewind without a bow thruster. It's purely a matter of experience and conditioning.

Second, the US announcement of the two computer failures, neither of which caused an accident, presumably has nothing at all to do with Boeing's recent embarrassment over continuing delays and cancellations to the Dreamliner, and a desire to damage Airbus?

Re:Two things (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503059)

Are you having any problems controlling the Lear Jet?

Re:Two things (5, Insightful)

squidinkcalligraphy (558677) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503071)

Flights are getting more and more automated. It used to be up to the pilot to take off and land, and the autopilot would fly the bit in the middle in good conditions. Now the autopilot takes off and lands too. The pilot is there in case of emergencies. But I would still wager that a computer would statistically be better than a human overall, otherwise the airlines wouldn't deploy this.

This case is of a plane travelling at such high speed and altitude that it only has a tiny window of opportunity between breaking up, stalling, or falling into the tempest below. If the computer systems keeping it in that window fail, then the pilot has little chance of actually fixing things. The alternative is to fly a lot more conservatively, with bigger margins of error. That would mean flying slower, and at lower altitude. Which means longer flights, that burn more fuel, hence cost more.

Re:Two things (1)

Rich0 (548339) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503401)

Well, the plane won't just fall out of the sky if they slow down a little - they should have erred on the side of slowing down and losing some alititude.

However, that isn't without issues if they don't resolve the problem quickly. At lower altitude they burn more fuel - which means there is a good chance they'll need to divert. That's better than disintegrating over an ocean, but it has risks of its own if you're 3 hours away from land.

Re:Two things (1)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503097)

Airbus has taken enough damage from their delays with the A400M - Boing hardly needs to heap on. Not to mention that your conspiracy-theory train of thought it beyond absurd.

Re:Two things (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503495)

come come my droog, boeing is after all part of the military-industrial complex, and there certainly have been instances of US TLAs spying on foreign corps. on behalf of such,.

Re:Two things (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503485)

As a former airline pilot, I don't buy this idea at all. I used to fly an all-glass transport jet, so I understand what automation can do for a pilot.

However, basic airmanship is still taught and required of all professional pilots. When all the computers fail, it's still just an airplane, and these Air France pilot would have been able to fly it. So, this isn't just a simple matter of "Computer fail = crash."

In my career, I did have one event where a computer failed in a very unexpected manner. Right after V1 and prior to rotation (pretty much like what they do in a simulator!) multiple unrelated systems failed. Partial flight data failure, nosegear failed to retract, one hydralic system fail, and AOA fail. Yes, this was alarming, but we flew the plane and got it back on the ground with no issues. The root cause was determined to be a computer somehow coming loose and having a partial connection to its wiring harness.

The revolution has started` (2, Funny)

Biswalt (1273170) | more than 5 years ago | (#28502981)

So the trains in DC collided because even while the human operator tried applying the breaks the computer overrode the engineer and kept the train moving at a good speed. And now the investigators of the air france flight are saying computer failures on that flight caused the plane to stay at a high-inoperable speed, despite the pilot's best effort to slow down? Does it sound to anyone else like the computer revolution from Terminator, the Matrix, nearly every other future sci-fi movie is taking place? We never should have let them start beating us in chess now the computers are getting all uppity.

Re:The revolution has started` (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503185)

So the trains in DC collided because even while the human operator tried applying the breaks the computer overrode the engineer and kept the train moving at a good speed.

Actually the brakes were on for 400 metres before the crash.

Re:The revolution has started` (1)

thogard (43403) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503383)

Which brakes? Most rains have several sets... and 400 meters on a train is sort of like 9 feet at high way speeds in a modern car.

R2 SHUT DOWN ALL THE TRASH COMPACTORS ON THE ... (4, Insightful)

j-stroy (640921) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503433)

Did the pilots shut down the flight computers in an effort to get the controls to respond appropriately? Professional Pilots are "do-ers", and right or wrong, they ALWAYS have a reason for their choices.

Did the flight computer failure mode fail to (dis)engage? I've heard about the manual control levels that an Airbus flight system degrades through. It looks like the computer wouldn't get out of the way soon enough, so the flight crew kicked it in the head.

They received the airplane in a un-recoverable, un-flyable, disintegrating condition from mach turbulence destroying lift and ultimately the aircraft. (coffin corner [wikipedia.org] )
Cascading failures generally occur from a synergy of multiple causes. In this case:
- A narrow flight envelope due to altitude and varying wind-speed in the storm. (had they climbed, trying to avoid the storm?)
- Pilot over-reliance on automated flight assist in marginal conditions.
- Failure of physical airspeed instruments due to severe icing from a massive updraft.
- Increased thrust from engines ingesting water contained in the 100mph updraft. (coffin corner!)
- Altitude increase from 100 mph updraft. (coffin corner!)
- Inappropriate computer control responses, destabilizing flight dynamics, leading to overspeed and unrecoverable loss of lift (mach stall).
- Turbulence and chaos of a severe storm masking the initial flight computer deviations.

Aerospace systems are made by humans, but... (4, Interesting)

3seas (184403) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503009)

...the way aerospace (life critical and specialized or specific field oriented) software is created, it is highly bug free, quite the opposite of feature creep bloat you see everywhere else, but even at the code level there is avoidance of function calls that can introduce another level of abstraction and complexity and contribute to bugs and failure. It is in this way that using the process of elimination we can come to some conclusions about where error is or can most certainly exist, philosophy.

On a hardware level, we have redundant backups and check system....

As such there is one area that neither software nor hardware has but only as a secondary or implimentation of, position.
Human error in concepts, beliefs, philosophies, abstraction definition variation, etc... That which exist before the hardware and software and often what hardware and software creation is inspired by, directed by, guide lined by, etc..

If the philosophy base is wrong then its limitations will manifest through the software and hardware created under such a philosophy and eventually show the limitations, via failure to perform.

There are plenty examples of human philosophy errors, such as how it wasn't until the early 1990's that the Catholic Church exonerated Galileo over his observation the earth revolved around the sun.
The Atlanta Centennial park bombing where the 911 system failed because no-one gave the park an address..... or is the philosophy of programming a 911 system to require an address the error? Or is it a good thing that all things needing 911 are at an address?

My pet peeve of the computer industry, the button on the front of the computer marked with a 0 & 1 symbol(s), yet over engineering has resulted in the meaning of those symbols to be more than "off & on" and this went further in removing the hard on off switch so that when the software based power switch failed, you have to physically unplug the computer from the wall, or take teh battery out.
The correct philosophy for such a switch would be a multi position switch, which the consumer doesn't have to know more than is obvious... And ultimately the motivating philosophy behind the software switch is that of creating an OS that needs a shutdown sequence and time for it. When you think of this "0&1" switch, what better representation of distorting the most basic and fundamental concept of computers with overcomplexifabulocation can there possible be?

Software and hardware is not where the error lies in this Air France tragedy, even if there is failure or limitations found there in hardware and software, but the failure is in not providing a manual override. And if the technology has been made to complex for manual control.... then let grandma crawl under the desk to unplug the damn computer....shut it down until the real problem is fixed.

BTW, due to the competitive commercial nature of aerospace software development tools, there is a level of incompatibility between them and as such there is also motive for playing the lockin game regardless of any "unforseen" risk to others. Perhaps there is a place for open source software here!!!

Don't bow down to the stone image (Stone = computer hardware - Image = software) of the beast of man, for the beast is error prone and his image can be no better. Instead take a closer look at the code.... with many eyes.....

Re:Aerospace systems are made by humans, but... (4, Interesting)

cjonslashdot (904508) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503145)

Good points.

I will also point out though that systems should be simple to operate, hence Apple for example would never think of having more than two positions for an on/off switch: but in order to achieve that, the system has to be engineered to be truly robust. (I am not saying that Apple equipment is.)

It used to be that equipment had well-defined states, but nowadays everything is programmed using procedural code, and nothing works right anymore.

Electrical engineers are trained in how to design things that really work: they assume asynchronous behavior and concurrency from the outset, and they have design methodologies to create a system that has well-defined states. Procedural code has indeterminate states, unless one uses design paradigms that pair those states, and simulation to test the design. Programmers don't use these techniques: generally speaking, procedural code is hacked together, and so we have laptops OSs that freeze, cellphones that lock up, and airplanes that crash.

The software that exists today is by and large all crap. Procedural programming is appropriate for business apps, but for a reliable real-time system you need an asynchronous design methodology, and you need to prove correctness for critical functions. This is not always done, in aerospace and even for spacecraft software.

Today's programmers don't even have a culture any longer that espouses design and design verification, as opposed to hacking together "code". In their purported quest for "clean code" they have culturally inculcated an obsolete and broken approach.

Re:Aerospace systems are made by humans, but... (1)

thogard (43403) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503341)

Your comments are close to two decades over. Today its all objects which defers the issues yet another step away from reality.
I agree with your other comments.

Any problem in computer science can be solved with one additional layer of indirection. But that usually will create another problem. -- David Wheeler (of ILLIAC fame, not the others)

Re:Aerospace systems are made by humans, but... (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503199)

One problem I see with the philosophy of software is the way it is tested. You create a nice, coherent application. Then testers raise 1000 bugs on it. Each of these bugs goes to a developer who changes something to fix the bug. Now you have a complete mess. Much less maintainable than the original one and quite likely with more bugs than you started out with.

Re:Aerospace systems are made by humans, but... (1)

Rich0 (548339) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503273)

While I agree with some of what you say - I don't buy it fully.

Ok, I'm making a smartphone. It should have a simple on-off button - not a 3-way toggle where you get data corruption if you switch it to the 3rd position. It should be hard to bypass the proper shutdown routine (removing the battery counts). So, then the counterproposal is - get rid of the need to do a proper shutdown. Sure, we can do that - no write cache and everything is transaction isolated so that corruptions are impossible. Now the thing needs 3X the hardware horsepower to have the same effective performance, which means the battery has to be 3X bigger to supply power, which means your smartphone is the size of a brick.

Likewise - something like an A320 is a complex beast - it depends on all kinds of machinery to make it work. Computers are just one more machine. It all needs to be properly engineered, but you can't just go back to pulling strings to warp the wings.

Now, I do think that primary instruments need to be operable in the absense of the computers/gyros/etc. At least the backup instruments. There should never be a question as to what the aircraft's speed, altitude, attitude, and heading are.

Itâ(TM)s quite obvious (1, Troll)

MicrosoftElitist (1138973) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503021)

The aircraft must have been running Linux. That's what you get when you use a free operating system, written by a bunch of hobbyist coders. Linux can't even compete in the same category as Windows. Windows is far superior. Linux doesn't even have an easy means for DACL manipulation and the list goes on.

Overheard at the Annual Bug of the Year Awards (1)

hyades1 (1149581) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503067)

"So you're nominated because you crashed Word 2007 three times in 20 minutes? Pussy.

Re:Overheard at the Annual Bug of the Year Awards (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503159)

You joke, but most engineers: aerospace and computer/electrical in this scenario, are legally bound to their work and liable for the lives aboard that craft if they can show it was faulty design.

Not to mention the personal aspect, who knows how terrible I would feel if a momentary lapse in my design created a rare enough scenario to kill several hundred people.

ObJoke... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503083)

It's in german... [heise.de] , but you'll understand it anyway....

default (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503111)

What is the default mode if all computers go down (if there are even any)?

Are you completely SOL in a fly-by-wire setup?

you fail it (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503135)

GAY NIGGERS FROM being GAY NIGGERS. dying. See? It's

Held to a higher standard (1)

wandazulu (265281) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503181)

This post reminded me of an article [fastcompany.com] that was written a couple years ago about the people who program the space shuttle. I couldn't find a link to it, but I recall a similar article about the software on the Boeing 777; essentially the pilots are sitting in front of a computer screen that they can bring up any piece of data about the airplane, and how these systems must all co-exist without interfering in any way with the flight systems, etc. Pretty interesting reads.

Frankly, the pressure in such an environment has got to be *beyond* intense; you're being asked to write software to, in some cases, cheat physics, and if you get it wrong, everybody dies. I have great sympathy for pilots who have to use the software, knowing that you can train to handle just so much, but I also have sympathy for the developers who have to write the programs that have to handle so much more.

A good Investigation Report (3, Interesting)

betasam (713798) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503193)

Pitot tubes [wikipedia.org] were invented in the 1700s by the French Engineer Henry Pitot and later modified for airspeed measurements. They are also used to measure aerodynamic speed in Formula racing cars too among other uses. Here is a comprehensive article following the crash investigation that is informative with photographs [salon.com] and the timeline of theories.

I read both the articles posted. They do not qualify as the best investigation reports. They seem to be building "What if" scenarios from all data that is available. Other A330 failures (no recent crashes reported) and Other places where ice in Pitot tubes led to failure (The Wikipedia article has a lot of information on this and planes which had problems notably, the X31 [wikipedia.org] .) The investigators are clearly under pressure to say what they have found and they are unable to report "nothing" to the press. With no luck in recovering the Black Box, the investigators (like they talk about Pilots not good at flying aircraft without the aid of in-flight safety systems) have to do it the old forensic way (reminds me of Crichton's Airframe). That is going to take time and the press, the Aircraft companies using A330s are impatient to know why.

Clearly no recent theory has come close to deducing the true reason for the crash. As I remember the first news item that appeared on the AF447 was that the plane "vanished" [cnn.com] from Radar and was sought for by the Brazilian Air Force before the crash site was positively identified. The last exchanges between the Pilot and the Aircraft tower followed by an automated message from the aircraft [wn.com] remain the main clues apart from the debris in this horrific accident.

A330 -- No Margin for Error (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503195)

There are a couple of aspects about the A330 problems that amaze me:

1. How can an airplane be allowed to carry passengers when the margin to airframe disintegration is so narrow? I can understand falling out of the sky if it stalls, but to be able to tear the airplane apart in level flight? What happened to margin of safety in airframe construction -- or is that whole concept now obsolete?
2. If the airplane can send fault messages home, why don't blackbox data streams get sent as well? At least that way there would be some situation info available as opposed to none.
3. In some ways reliance on flight computers is like reliance on spreadsheets or calculators -- if you do not understand what is going on and are not capable of doing it yourself then you cannot tell if the software is correct. Essentially, if the computer says it is so then it is, and you either survive or not.

This is why airbii make pilots nervous. (3, Interesting)

T-Bucket (823202) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503219)

This is why I really want any airplane I'm flying to LISTEN to me, not argue with me... At no point should a computer be able to override pilot input. Also, i want a solid mechanical link between the controls I'm pushing on and the control surfaces on the wings... That way, even if EVERY computer on the plane dies, I can still control the damn thing...

And yes IAAAP... (I Am An Airline Pilot)

Re:This is why airbii make pilots nervous. (3, Insightful)

John Hasler (414242) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503431)

> Also, i want a solid mechanical link between the controls I'm pushing on and the control
> surfaces on the wings...

You aren't strong enough to control an A330 with your muscles.

Speculation (5, Insightful)

ironicsky (569792) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503267)

Last time I checked the air france black box recorder hasn't been located let alone pulled out of the ocean. Without having the black box how can the NTSB be making speculations as to the cause of the downed flight? Others are speculating things like the Rudder [csmonitor.com] had problems, Turbulence [timesonline.co.uk] , this computer bug [wsj.com] .

Until they know what the actual cause is they should avoid speculation because it does absolutely nothing other then fill media headlines with non-sense.

Timely as ever, Slashdot (1)

Legion303 (97901) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503281)

Investigators suspected the computers a good 3 weeks ago, so I'm not sure how this qualifies as news.

Outsourcing kills people? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503287)

Take a look at this resume and what it implies:
http://www.linkedin.com/pub/parul-goyal/b/b57/a

The instruction was probably "thank you rebooted systems" instead of "please reboot system"

I'm never getting on an Airbus.

Amazing (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28503315)

I was modded down here multiple times for saying just this earlier. What is funny is that this issue is already KNOWN amongst commercial pilots. Just the idiots around that do not know, but want to mod ppl down because they support Airbus.

No manual control? (2, Interesting)

Hurricane78 (562437) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503319)

What about, you know... manual control?
Sure there are no mechanic cables anymore, but a wire controls the low-level hardware.
But at least it has to have just as basic piece of electronics that has no software or big complexity, and that allows you to manually steer the plane.
(No, that is not too hard to do, even on such big jets. You just have to be more careful about quick actions, stalling the plane & co.)

A piece of electronics that is so simple, that the only thing killing it, is an electric shock right into its mainboard.

Electronics failure is never a cause! (Because: What would that be?)
The reason usually is a software error, that electric shock, or some other external source.

Re:No manual control? (1)

John Hasler (414242) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503471)

Why are crashes caused by pilot error better than ones caused by software error? Yes, the computers screw up sometimes. If they screw up less often than the pilots would we are better off. Better yet, how about letting the computer fly the plane while the pilot supervises, ready to intervene if the computer goes wrong? Oh. Wait. That's exactly what they do!

Re:No manual control? (3, Insightful)

Poingggg (103097) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503547)

I did RTFA, and from what i understand of it it was impossible to get a reliable reading from the instruments in the cockpit, because the computers were failing and the airspeed-detector was unreliable (what seemed to be the primary cause of the failing of the computers). Manual control is fine, IF you know your altitude, airspeed etc. Try driving a car with blinded windows and a defective speedometer and an unreliable rev-meter.
I am not a pilot, but even I can understand that for manual control one has to have reliable data on what the plane is doing, which is exactly what was missing in this case (if the theory we are talking about is right).

And the Operating System is... (1)

rstanley (758673) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503411)

Does anyone know??? I'll reserve further comments until this is known.
 

Design Philosphy (5, Informative)

Old Sparky (675061) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503457)

Scary stuff.

The Wall Street Journal article oversimplifies the problem with the Airbus
design philosophy. In effect; Too Damn Much reliance on the automated flight
control system for basic safety-of-flight.

A prime example?

Rudder hinges.

Airbus has notoriously
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Airlines_Flight_587 [wikipedia.org]
underbuilt the rudder hinges on the A300 (and, no doubt, the A330) in the
interest of lightness and efficiency. They have chosen to rely on the
automated flight control system to limit loads on the structure, instead of
building the necessary robustness into that structure.

This is great when flight conditions are all peachy, but in a thunderstorm, at
night, with sensors (iced-up pitot tubes?) that are prone to failure, well
then you have a failure scenario that the designers never built into their
simulations, and the rescue/recovery teams in the south Atlantic find the
rudder 37 miles from the rest of the wreckage.

Forwarded from a colleague (names redacted);

>> This from a friend and NWA pilot I flew the B-757
>> with out of our Tokyo base.........Now obviously on the A-330
>>
>>
>> Well, I'm sure you have all heard of the Air France accident. I fly
>> the same plane, the A330.
>>
>>
>>
>> Yesterday while coming up from Hong Kong to Tokyo , a 1700nm
>> 4hr. flight, we experienced the same problems Air France had while
>> flying thru bad weather.
>> I have a link to the failures that occurred on AF 447. My list is
>> almost the same.
>> http://www.eurocockpit.com/images/acars447.php [eurocockpit.com]
>>
>> The problem I suspect is the pitot tubes ice over and you
>> loose your airspeed indication along with the auto pilot, auto
>> throttles and rudder limit protection. The rudder limit protection
>> keeps you from over stressing the rudder at high speed.
>>
>> Synopsis;
>> Tuesday 23, 2009 10am enroute HKG to NRT. Entering Nara Japan
>> airspace.
>>
>> FL390 mostly clear with occasional isolated areas of rain,
>> clouds tops about FL410.
>> Outside air temperature was -50C TAT -21C (your not supposed to get
>> liquid water at these temps). We did.
>>
>> As we were following other aircraft along our route. We
>> approached a large area of rain below us. Tilting the weather radar
>> down we could see the heavy rain below, displayed in red. At our
>> altitude the radar indicated green or light precipitation, most
>> likely ice crystals we thought.
>>
>> Entering the cloud tops we experienced just light to moderate
>> turbulence. (The winds were around 30kts at altitude.) After about
>> 15 sec. we encountered moderate rain. We thought it odd to have
>> rain streaming up the windshield at this altitude and the sound of
>> the plane getting pelted like an aluminum garage door. It got very
>> warm and humid in the cockpit all of a sudden.
>> Five seconds later the Captains, First Officers, and standby
>> airspeed indicators rolled back to 60kts. The auto pilot and auto
>> throttles disengaged. The Master Warning and Master Caution
>> flashed, and the sounds of chirps and clicks letting us know these
>> things were happening.
>> The Capt. hand flew the plane on the shortest
>> vector out of the rain. The airspeed indicators briefly came back
>> but failed again. The failure lasted for THREE minutes. We flew the
>> recommended 83%N1 power setting. When the airspeed indicators came
>> back. we were within 5 knots of our desired speed. Everything
>> returned to normal except for the computer logic controlling the
>> plane. (We were in alternate law for the rest of the flight.)
>>
>> We had good conditions for the failure; daylight, we were
>> rested, relatively small area, and light turbulence. I think it
>> could have been much worse. The Capt did a great job fly and staying
>> cool. We did our procedures called dispatch and maintenance on the
>> SAT COM and landed in Narita. That's it.
>>

- Old Sparky
"Never Flight Test for free."
- Wise Man

Still human error. (2, Insightful)

v(*_*)vvvv (233078) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503481)

Like any other part of the plane, the computer is just another instrument designed and manufactured by people. Blame the programmer, the tester, the lack of analysis. The cause of this accident has nothing to do with computers. They just do what we tell them to. Leave them alone.

Broke up from flying 'too fast'? (2, Interesting)

Fantastic Lad (198284) | more than 5 years ago | (#28503535)

Okay. That's just silly.

There is clearly some major pressure to build a presentable story to the public if they're floating ideas like these ones. If the PR is successful, Official Culture will soon include passenger jets which will break up from 'excessive' flying.

A significant air blast from one of the increasingly frequent falling rocks from outer space could easily account for this disaster, and could explain some of the more peculiar details.

Within a few days of the crash the first piece of evidence that something other than high technology and weather destroyed AF 447 came in.

A Spanish pilot with Air Comet (which flies from South and Central American countries to Madrid) flying the Lima to Madrid route reported a bright descending light in the region of AF 447's last position:

        "Suddenly we saw in the distance a bright intense flash of white light that fell straight down and disappeared in six seconds.

        At the time of the sighting, (the copilot and a passenger who was in the front kitchen area of the airplane also saw it), the Air Comet aircraft was located at seven degrees north of the equator and at the 49th meridian West. The estimated location for the A-330-203 until the moment of its disappearance is at the equator and around the 30th meridian West."

It seems reasonable to suggest that an aircraft would not produce a bright and intense white light for six seconds as it fell from the sky. The many dozens of meteorite and fireball sightings over the past few years however are often seen as bright white flashes of descending light.

--Quoted from this article [sott.net] which digs into the idea of this event being another case of "Is it just me ore do there seem to be a lot more ROCKS FROM SPACE falling around our ears lately?".

-FL

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