The opposite was true of US Airways Flight 1549 whose twin engines flamed dead out after climbing through a flock of birds during takeoff. The captain and first officer ditched the plane in the Hudson river; all 115 passengers on the flight survived.
The reasons for the diametrically opposite outcomes between these two airplane crashes reside entirely within the differences in the brains of their pilots. It involves the response of the human mind to situations of stress, fear and cognition.
Statistically half of all airline crashes can be attributed to “pilot error”. However, these statistics are not entirely unequivocal. For example there are cases of what is termed: “controlled flight into terrain” where pilots, completely unaware of a dangerous situation, believing that they were fully in control and on course, still crashed their aircraft. Then there are fatal incidents directly resulting from the pilot’s incorrect responses to emergency conditions; disregarding warnings or not following accepted procedures.
The latter was the case of Air France 447. While at cruise altitude and on automatic pilot, ice caused the plane’s airspeed indicator to read incorrectly. Unable to reason through the situation, the co-pilot did the unthinkable – failing to consult the checklist for this situation, he disengaged the autopilot. Attempting to fly the aircraft manually at that altitude, he pulled back on the controls, placing the aircraft in a stall condition.
Student pilots learn from their earliest training that pulling back on the control is exactly the WRONG response to a stall; a condition where the nose is lifted up to the point where the plane loses all lift. Even through every pilot knows that placing ANY aircraft in a nose-down attitude is the proper recovery procedure for a stall, the Air France co-pilot continued to attempt to pull back on the controls until the plane hit the ocean. Why?
Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder revealed that the co-pilot in command at that moment (the pilot was away from the flight deck) was apparently overcome with fear, unable to stop and reason through the predicament. Psychologists who study people’s reactions during periods of extreme fear sometimes refer to this inability to think a situation through as a “brain lock”. Deep within our brains the Amygdale processes our fear responses. If these responses override the Frontal Cortex, the “reasoning” portion of the brain, the person mostly likely will respond using instinctive behavior.
The crew of Air France 447 had almost five minutes to attempt to diagnose and recover control of their aircraft. Conversely, Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger in command of US Airways Flight 1549, had mere seconds. But Sully did possess the benefit of both years of experience and specific training which had been programmed into his cognition. When the engines flamed out on his Airbus, his rational frontal cortex overrode the fear. By thinking and responding rationally Sully and his First Officer saved 115 lives. Reacting to fear without thinking cost the lives of 228 Air France passengers.
Fear can cause us to believe things that are not true, to draw to incorrect conclusions and take inappropriate actions; fear often is a response out of ignorance. The antidote to fear is knowledge – education, training, experience and critical thinking.
In 1993, Chinese pilots flying a U.S.-made MD-80 were attempting to land in northwest China when the aircraft crashed on approach killing all on board. The pilots were baffled by an audio voice alarm from the plane's ground proximity warning system. Recovered from the wreckage, the plane's cockpit voice recorder picked up the Chinese pilot's last words: "What does 'pull up' mean?"References:
1. PlaneCrashInfo.com accident database and represents 1,300 fatal accidents involving commercial aircraft, world-wide, from 1950 thru 2009 for which a specific cause is known.