One of the biggest leaps forward in jet airliner technology came with the arrival of the Airbus A320. This plane was introduced by the French-German-British-Spanish Airbus consortium in 1988 in an ultimately successful attempt to compete with Boeing, which had been the dominant force in commercial aircraft for the previous 35 years. To reduce the cost of the aircraft, the fuel and the numbers of crew required to fly it, Airbus went much further in automating the flying process than ever before, introducing what is known as a ‘flight management system’. In essence, this was the world’s first fully-automated plane.
‘This is a kind of machine partner,’ said Professor David Woods, author of Behind Human Error, ‘which rides in the cockpit with the flight crew and manages the flight path of the aircraft. It’s what the pilot talks to, giving instructions through a keyboard. This system is on all modern airplanes.’
The Airbus was more thorough in its approach than any aircraft before and, as a result, attracted the majority of the unfavorable attention accorded to modern flight systems, notably the ill-named ‘fly-by-wire’ concept in which the pilot has no direct physical contact with the operating systems.
In the first few years after the A320 was launched in 1988, it was involved in at least five accidents, as well as numerous other ‘incidents’ in which man and computerized machine clashed. In several of these, the Airbus unaccountably reared up during the approach to landing and then stalled. The trouble was that, although the computer was doing what it was supposed to, the pilot was either not sufficiently trained or aware enough to work out what that was.
The earliest incident – on June 26, 1988, at Habsheim in eastern France – came shortly after the first of the aircraft had been delivered, and sent shockwaves through the aviation world. Air France 296 was a demo plane packed with 136 crew and passengers – the latter being the winners of a competition organized by a local newspaper. They were supposed to be making a one-hour flight on the evolutionary new airliner, taking in Mont Blanc and two passes over Habsheim air show. The first of these flyovers was to be at low speed, with the landing gear down, at just 100 ft.
A huge crowd had gathered to watch as the A320 made its approach; but their appreciative shouts changed to gasps of horror as the jet labored over the runway towards the forest surrounding the airport. To the onlookers’ disbelief, the Airbus did not climb but simply flew into the trees. It disappeared from view, and second later there was an enormous explosion and fireball. A number of amateur videos of the whole thing were shot and can be seen on YouTube, and perhaps the most astonishing thing, from that footage, is that only three people were killed. A boy was impaled through his chest on wreckage, and a young girl died from smoke inhalation, along with a woman who was trying to free the child from her seat.
Unfortunately, the crash investigation was marred by a series of rows involving the investigators, the French authorities and the pilot, Michel Asseline, on such points as the height of the trees into which the plane crashed, the possibility of altimeter failure, the theft of some television film of the accident, the engines’ alleged poor restart rate at low altitude, and the fact that the DVR and DFDR went off four seconds before impact. The crash was blamed on cockpit confusion over altitude, but outside observers have said that the on-board computer believed the aircraft to be landing, and thus was in landing mode. Consequently, it took too much time for the engines to throttle up to avert the crash. The A320’s on-board computers were later programmed to maintain more power on the final approach.
Culled from: Black Box: Inside the World’s Worst Plane Crashes