Mayday (2013) s09e03 Episode Script

Pilot vs. Plane

NARRATOR: It's the first public demonstration of the world's most sophisticated passenger jet.
The Airbus A320 is being introduced to the world.
AIRFIELD ANNOUNCER: Mesdames et messieurs, vos attentions, s'il vous plait That introduction turns into a fatal calamity.
If Airbus is to survive, they must find the answer to one crucial question.
Was it the pilot, or was it the plane? It's 2:30 in the afternoon on June 26, 1988.
An unusual charter flight prepares to depart Basel Mulhouse airport in France, near the Swiss border.
Captain Michel Asseline is one of Air France's most distinguished pilots.
On! Though only 44, he's the head of pilot training for the company's newest plane, the Airbus A320.
It's only the third of its kind to roll off the assembly line.
Captain Asseline flew this very aircraft from the factory in Toulouse just two days earlier.
MAN: I was in charge of the launching of the A320 in Air France.
The company used me to promote the aircraft.
Speeches to make - I was constantly on the television, on newspapers.
ACF 296, we'd like to roll, please.
Asseline's first officer, Pierre Maziere, is also a senior Air France pilot.
He's invited two off-duty flight attendants to come along for the ride on the special flight.
The aircraft is booked to perform a low-altitude flyover at a local air show.
There are 130 people on board this A320 .
which is unusual for an air show demonstration flight.
There are even children, like 7-year-old Mariama Barry, unaccompanied by their parents.
Most got their tickets as promotional gifts from a local bank and newspaper.
Jean-Marie Schreiber is a young reporter covering the launch of the new plane.
TRANSLATION: As a journalist, I was thrilled to be on the flight, to have a chance to see how people reacted inside the plane.
Another journalist aboard, Jean-Claude Boetsch, has been busy recording the event.
TRANSLATION: As I got on the plane, I thought, "Great, this is going to be an unforgettable experience.
" And it really was unforgettable.
The A320 is the first civil aircraft to use fly-by-wire, a cutting-edge technology that computerises flight controls.
The system had previously mainly been used by the military.
MAN: On the fly-by-wire system, the pilot essentially flies the computer and the computer flies the aircraft.
Fly-by-wire alters the relationship between pilot and plane.
It gives computers the ability to override human inputs to prevent pilot error.
The A320's flight computer won't let its human operators do anything it determines to be dangerous.
Airbus has become the first civil aircraft maker to embrace this technology.
It hopes this will give it an edge over its long-time American rival, Boeing.
In its first public presentation, Airbus has a lot on the line.
OK, tell me what you want in terms of speed and altitude.
OK, then, take off right turn.
We go nice and easy to find out things.
ASSELINE: We tried to demonstrate the credibility of this aircraft.
To say we wanted to show off, not exactly.
We wanted to make a good job and we were sure to make a good job.
And you just leave it up to me.
I'll give it alpha max! - Done it 20 times! - OK.
Captain Asseline is planning a breathtaking manoeuvre .
a low-altitude nose-high fly-by at alpha max.
This is the slowest a plane can fly without stalling.
ACF 296, cue, clear for take-off, runway 16.
We're rolling.
Gear up.
Flaps one.
After-take-off checklist completed.
It's only a 5-minute flight to Habsheim airfield, where the air show is being held.
For this sleepy Alsatian town, the air show is the highlight of the summer.
The airfield is so small, its co-ordinates aren't stored in the plane's navigation database, so the pilots must find it by sight.
You're at eight nautical miles.
You'll soon see it.
There's the highway.
We leave the highway to the left, don't we? No, to the right of the highway.
Uh, it's slightly to the right of the highway.
There's the airfield! You've got it, have you? The pilots have spotted the airfield late.
They will have to hurry to descend to the planned altitude for the flyover at the air show.
MAN: Air charter 296, good afternoon.
Habsheim, hello! We're coming into view of the airfield for the flyover.
Yes, I can see you.
You are cleared.
The sky is clear.
Gear down.
OK, we're going in for a low altitude, low-speed flyover, 296.
Flaps two.
Quebec November Hotel Habsheim Fox Echo 9.
OK, 9.
Put in 9.
- Flaps three.
- Flaps three.
That's the airfield.
You confirm? Affirmative.
Flight 296 makes a gentle turn to line up with the runway.
The pilots must now lose more altitude and speed to get into position for the flyover.
AIRFIELD ANNOUNCER: Mesdames et messieurs, vos attention, s'il vous plait OK, you are at 100 feet there.
- 100.
- Watch it.
Watch it.
The aircraft is now at the planned altitude.
For Asseline, this will be the most delicate part of the manoeuvre.
He must keep the plane in a stable position with the nose up, but not too high.
TRANSLATION: I looked at the ground and said, "Look, he's not high enough," because you could see the grass right out your window.
OK, I'm OK there.
Disconnect auto throttle.
He disables one of the plane's safety features so that the computer won't speed up the slow-moving plane - only now, Captain Asseline sees a danger that threatens the lives of everyone onboard.
The A320's low-speed flyover at the Habsheim airfield is suddenly not going according to plan.
There's a forest in the path of Captain Asseline's plane.
- Takeoff/go-around power! He selects the highest thrust setting and pulls back on the controls, expecting the aircraft to pull up .
but the plane keeps dropping.
Can't be! Merde! Still full of fuel, the right wing of the jet is sheared off.
The fuel ignites immediately on impact.
We stopped very quickly, and on the ground I broke my seat, just because I was holding very firmly.
I broke my seat and I could see a lot of flames all over.
About 20m-high flames around the cockpit with smoke coming from everywhere.
The first officer is badly injured.
There was a lot of blood, and even with the full harness, he hit something in front of him.
What the hell have you done? I don't know.
I don't understand! Incredibly, the fuselage is still in one piece.
Everyone has survived the impact, but they're not out of danger yet.
TRANSLATION: Then we heard somebody say, "Get out! Get out! There's a fire!" Evacuate the aircraft! Hurry! I'll deal with him.
Only two exits can be used for evacuation - the rest are engulfed in flames.
But thick branches block one of the doors, making evacuation difficult.
(PASSENGERS SCREAM) In the chaos of the cabin, some passengers struggle with their seatbelts.
Marie-Francoise Froesch is one of the last passengers to leave her seat.
She comes across Mariama Barry, who's trapped in her seat.
TRANSLATION OF BOETSCH: Mariama Barry, she was seven, eight.
After the accident, people pushing toward the exit pushed on the backs of the seats.
The backs folded over her and then she was trapped by her seatbelt.
No-one saw her.
She was forgotten.
Let me help you! Let me help you! Oh! - But it's too late - We'll be OK.
both are overcome by smoke before they can get off the plane.
In the cockpit, Captain Asseline struggles to get his injured first officer out of the burning aircraft.
I took him from his seat, unbelted him, carried - I don't know how - and I put him in the slide.
When the passengers, the last one was out of the plane, I saw my crew.
They told me, "Captain, Captain, they are all out.
" But the crew is wrong.
Not all the passengers have made it out.
Marie-Francoise Froesch, Mariama Barry, and another young boy are dead.
In addition to the tragic loss of life, the accident is a PR disaster for Airbus.
The crash could not possibly have come at a worse time for Airbus.
They were trying out this new concept which they had touted very widely as a new level of safety for civil flight and here's the pilot going and crashing one! For those who actually saw the accident - and it was broadcast on the news media throughout the world the same evening that it happened - there was amazement.
MAN: Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no! The crash was a major embarrassment.
Investigators from France's accident investigation bureau are on the scene of the crash within hours.
They need to know why this demonstration flight ended in disaster.
They recover the plane's data and voice recorders.
Claude Bechet will head the investigation.
Was it the pilot, or was it the plane? We need to know.
Like the pilots of Flight 296, he also works for Air France as an airline captain Let's get to work! .
which is unusual for a state investigator.
At that time I was still an airline pilot and I was in New York when the accident happened, and they sent me a telegram to ask me to come back to Paris as soon as possible.
Apart from the flight recorders, investigators have a remarkable piece of evidence to consider.
A high-quality video of the accident has been recorded by a French cameraman.
It was the first time we had a video of an accident.
Normally an accident happens in the middle of nowhere .
where nobody is there with a camera to film it.
The tape clearly shows the plane flying right at the trees at the end of the runway.
It doesn't seem to be climbing at all.
The cockpit voice recorder offers a confounding clue.
ASSELINE: Takeoff/go-around power! COMPUTER: 30.
Can't be! Merde! It's clear - the crew had no idea there was an obstacle at the end of the runway.
Investigators are puzzled.
How could a forest take a pilot by surprise? Bechet brings Captain Asseline in for questioning about the flyover at Habsheim.
They need to know what his plan was.
My intention was to carry out a flyover at slow speed.
As a qualified A320 pilot, Claude Bechet is familiar with the plane's capabilities.
Over the airstrip and we go to alpha max.
Very good.
He sees nothing wrong with Captain Asseline's plan.
It was not bad.
Making a slow pass was well planned, and he seemed to me to be very open and very ready to help, to work with the investigation commission.
Investigators turned their attention to how Air France prepared the flight crew for the air show.
They discover a memo setting out the rules for all air show flights.
What draws the attention of investigators is the minimum altitude Air France had selected for air show flyovers - 100 feet.
It was in violation of national regulations.
They should have been at 500 feet, as a matter of fact, but there was, at that time, a tendency for pilots who were making air shows like that to go a little bit lower and sometimes much lower.
Chief investigator Claude Bechet now wonders if there were any other mistakes in the planning of the flight.
He soon learns that Air France's flight division didn't start drawing up a flight plan for the demonstration until less than 48 hours before the air show.
An Air France employee had prepared maps of the airfield for the crew of Flight 296.
Investigators find a serious problem.
The forest around Habsheim airfield did not show up on the photocopies.
The employee who had put together the flight package didn't have an opportunity to discuss it with the crew.
You were using a navigation chart? While questioning Asseline, Bechet discovers that the pilots were also given little time to prepare.
Here's the flight package.
That's highly unusual for an air show.
ASSELINE: My co-pilot told me, "OK, we make a flight around Mont Blanc, "and then we have to make two low passes of a small airport, Habsheim.
" He told me there is nothing special.
So for me, it was a normal flight, a normal day.
That preparation had not been complete, and there had been no briefing of the crew by the staff.
Investigators then make an intriguing discovery at the crash site.
They measure the height of the trees hit by Flight 296.
They discover the average height of the forest to be only 40 feet.
This poses an urgent question.
How could an Airbus that was supposed to be flying at 100 feet hit trees less than half that height? It is clear to investigators that Flight 296 fatally deviated from its original flight plan, losing altitude before plunging into a forest.
But only the black box data can help them understand how and why this had happened.
Information from the A320's flight data recorder is recovered within hours of the crash.
The device records information about 200 aircraft functions.
It paints a detailed picture of how Flight 296 was operating in the final minutes of its journey.
It can't be! We could reconstruct the entire accident.
We could live with the crew as the accident was happening.
Investigators make two striking observations from the data.
The first is that Flight 296 suffered no mechanical breakdowns.
The second is that the A320 followed a very different flight path than the one Captain Asseline had planned.
Instead of maintaining a stable air speed and altitude, Flight 296 had slowed down and lost altitude as it performed the flyover.
As the A320 crossed the Habsheim airfield, its speed dropped to only 112 knots.
That's about as slow as an A320 can fly.
The plane's deceleration was so dramatic, it was even visible on the video.
Michel Asseline was one of Air France's top pilots.
Claude Bechet is hard-pressed to understand how he could have mishandled such a high-profile flight.
Pressed further, Asseline explains how the trouble started.
You were using a navigation chart? Yes.
We had some difficulty locating the airfield.
Leave the highway to the left, don't we? No, to the right of the highway.
It's slightly to the right of the highway.
They spotted the airfield too late, so when they did, they reduced the power and they descended.
So they rushed their descent, in order to get into position for the flyover.
And they were still slowing down when they reached the airfield.
That's the airfield.
You confirm? Affirmative.
But then another problem emerged.
The spectators were lined up on a different runway from the one the crew was heading for.
The crew of Air France Flight 296 is ill-prepared for their demonstration flight.
In planning for the air show, Air France only provided the crew with information for runway two, Habsheim's only paved airstrip.
But Captain Asseline sees the crowds are lined on a much shorter adjacent grass field.
I was expecting a normal runway.
At the latest moment, I saw that it was a grass runway.
Captain Asseline lined up with the grass strip.
I had no idea that at the end of the runway was a forest.
For me, it was bushes or something.
OK, you're at 100 feet there.
Watch it.
Watch it! Because they had to rush their descent, by the time Flight 296 got to the airfield, it was flying too fast.
To lose speed, Captain Asseline kept the thrust on its lowest power setting, well below the setting pilots normally use for alpha max flight.
But another serious problem was developing.
The aircraft had dropped below 100 feet and was continuing to fall, and the crew didn't seem to notice.
I'm OK there.
Disconnect auto throttle.
In a matter of seconds, the altitude had fallen to only 30 feet.
Takeoff/go-around power! No airplane of that size or of any other size should make a fly-past that low.
But that is clear.
You were at 30 feet, not 100.
I believed I was at 100 feet.
Captain Asseline insists his instruments failed him.
Flaps 2.
MAN: (OVER RADIO) Quebec November Hotel Habsheim Fox Echo 9.
Captain Asseline was relying on his barometric altimeter.
It uses air pressure to measure the plane's distance from the ground.
It had to be set to local atmospheric pressure to be accurate.
MAN: (OVER RADIO) Quebec November Hotel Habsheim Fox Echo 9.
The cockpit recorder proves that the tower provided the pressure reading and the crew set their instrument.
But Asseline insists the altimeter was giving him a false reading.
I tell you, the altimeter said the plane was at 100 feet.
Michel Asseline stated that the barometric altimeter wasin fact, to be precise, 67 feet out, and that is something that he claims led him to be flying at 30 feet instead of at 100 feet.
Investigators are sceptical.
Asseline had more than one instrument to give him altitude information.
The A320 has a second altimeter that uses radio waves to calculate the plane's distance from the ground.
That altimeter displays the altitude on a digital display.
But Captain Asseline claims it was difficult to read.
We could not use the radio altimeter because this radio altimeter is digital, and nobody can fly by reading numbers.
I tried it later on the simulator.
I never succeed to do it.
But the radio altimeter has another way of alerting pilots.
I'm OK there.
A digital voice call-out.
Disconnect auto throttle.
But Asseline claims he and his first officer, Pierre Maziere, could not hear it.
Some people said, "But you could have heard the radio altimeter "saying, "30, 30.
50, 40, 30.
" No, because at that time, this aircraft was very, very noisy, and we had the headsets, and we demonstrated at that time that the radio altimeter warnings or the radio altimeter call-outs, they were not going through the headset.
Despite Asseline's defence, investigators are certain that the crew of Flight 296 mishandled a risky manoeuvre.
Bechet has more questions for Captain Asseline.
What did you do when you saw the trees? I did what any pilot would do - I tried to climb over them.
Investigators learned that in the final moments before the crash Takeoff/go-around power! .
Captain Asseline applied full throttle, but he claims the engines did not respond and when they finally kicked in, it was too late.
Merde! I tell you - the engines did not come on when I gave it full throttle! Captain Asseline's testimony raises a troubling prospect.
If there was a prolonged delay in engine response, it could indicate a critical problem with the A320's turbojets.
Captain Asseline is convinced the engines didn't respond quickly enough in the final seconds of the flight.
He makes it his mission to prove it.
He uncovers an Airbus document warning of a defect on the A320.
It says the plane's engine speed could stagnate at low altitude, a condition caused by poor air flow.
When this occurs, the engine cannot accelerate.
But investigators can find no evidence of such a failure in any of the data from the plane.
- 30.
- Takeoff/go-around power! In the five seconds after Captain Asseline applied full power on the thrust levers, the A320's twin engines had begun to spool up.
They reached 84% thrust - close to full power - just before the plane hit the trees.
When you put it from idle to full power, you have the impression that nothing happens for a few seconds, then the power comes.
That was normal, exactly as predicted by the certification.
Investigators are increasingly certain the engines on Flight 296 didn't fail.
They find a novel way to verify the data.
Video of the crash picked up the distinctive sound of the A320's engines accelerating.
(ENGINES ACCELERATING) (TAPE STOPS AND REWINDS) By studying that sound, engineers can determine how much power the engines were generating in the final seconds before the crash.
We were able to compare the RPM of the engines from that film and from the flight data recorder.
There was nothing wrong with the engines - any of the two engines.
Why?! Chief investigator Claude Bechet has a new headache.
Captain Asseline is convinced there is a conspiracy against him.
He cuts off all cooperation with the investigation.
Very well.
ASSELINE: The investigation committee, I tried to co-operate with them, but I began to be suspicious.
In the press each week - "The aircraft is good," "The aircraft has nothing," "Pilot error, pilot error, pilot error.
" All that was a big, big, big corrupt - my opinion.
Captain Asseline begins a campaign to challenge the French investigation.
He appears on British television to make a dramatic assertion.
When I pulled the stick to up position, the flight controls, the elevator control, go to down position, so on any aircraft, if you ask up, following the order of the pilots, the lever control goes to up.
On that one, it went to down.
Why? That would be the good question.
His accusations go to the heart of doubts about the aircraft - that Airbus' fly-by-wire system had given the A320's computers too much control.
The Airbus A320 is being introduced to the world.
That introduction turns into a fatal calamity.
Captain Asseline's claim that the plane didn't follow his instructions is supported by data from the plane's flight recorder.
The black box recorded every movement of the pilot's side-stick controller.
It does show that, seconds before the crash, Captain Asseline pulled it back to get the plane's nose up.
Investigators compare it with what the plane did in response.
They make a perplexing discovery.
He's telling the truth - the elevator moved down.
In the final seconds before the accident, the pilots had desperately tried to pull up.
The side-stick controls the plane's elevator.
Pulling back on it should raise the elevator and pitch the plane upwards.
But that's not what happened on this flight.
During the last few seconds, prior to contact with the trees, the pilot was dragging back on the stick as hard as he could but the flight surfaces were moving into a position to put the nose down.
Captain Asseline believes the plane's descent triggered an automatic response by the flight computers.
Asseline inadvertently brought his plane to within 30 feet of the ground, with his landing gear down and his flaps extended.
Investigators now wonder if the plane's computer determined that Asseline was landing and initiated the necessary steps to accomplish that.
As the plane levelled up with the airfield, it overflew a little copse of trees, which took the radar altitude momentarily below 30 feet.
That would have been sufficient to trigger the flight control system to enter landing mode.
Investigators must try to determine whether the A320 overrode its pilot at a critical moment.
They analyse the data from the flight recorder.
Stop it there.
But, to their disappointment So was the plane in landing mode or not? .
the flight data recorder can't confirm if the plane went into landing mode.
The A320's systems are so advanced that the recorder can't track all of the plane's functions.
Investigator Claude Bechet comes up with another way to find out.
He replicates Asseline's approach to the Habsheim airfield.
Let's start the descent.
Power to flight idle.
(TURBINES WIND DOWN) Now put it into alpha max.
That's it - gently.
I replayed the accident but on the longest runway in Toulouse.
Altitude 40 feet, 35 feet Bechet's plan is to descend to 30 feet, as Asseline's A320 did.
Now pull up slightly to level off.
Hold it there.
(ENGINES ROAR) Bechet wants to see if the flight computer puts the plane in landing mode.
Now full thrust.
(TURBINES WIND UP) Did you feel that? The alpha protection.
The test flight has triggered a nose-down response from the plane's computers, like the crash of Flight 296 .
but the plane hadn't gone into landing mode.
Instead, the flyover had activated one of the A320's main safety features - stall protection.
Due to a lack of air flow over the wings, flying slowly in a nose-high position can cause a plane to lose lift.
The A320's computer has been programmed to bring the plane's nose down when it gets close to stalling.
This means that, in theory, as long as the flight control system is in operation, the pilot cannot stall the plane.
Bechet concludes the flight computers did override Captain Asseline's command but he believes that, by doing so, it had prevented the plane from stalling and crashing just short of the treeline.
That airplane didn't stall and, let's say, it landed on the trees.
The investigation into the crash at Habsheim is coming to an end.
The conclusion of my report was that the airplane was too low, too slow and with not enough power.
As far as Claude Bechet is concerned, the report is the final word on the Habsheim tragedy.
The case, however, is far from over.
The French justice system is moving towards a judgement of Captain Asseline.
He is charged with involuntary homicide in the deaths of three passengers and faces the prospect of a long prison sentence.
But Captain Asseline believes he has found evidence that will exonerate him.
He is convinced there was a conspiracy to tamper with the plane's black boxes to conceal problems with the A320's fly-by-wire technology.
There's been a cover-up with some phoney recorders at the first point.
The second point - they've been changing the content of the recorders.
It all begins, according to Asseline, at the crash site.
An employee of France's Civil Aviation Authority is photographed carrying the A320's flight recorders from the scene.
Those same black boxes are presented as evidence at Asseline's trial .
but, inexplicably, they look different.
TRANSLATION: I had a chance to see the black boxes held by the court but, when I see the state they're in, they're old boxes, full of scratches, dusty, with chipped paint.
I think, "Wait, these can't be the boxes from the crash.
"The plane was new.
They're not the right ones.
" Captain Asseline hires a Swiss criminology institute to compare the two photographs.
Its conclusion? They're not the same flight recorders.
Captain Michel Asseline claims the black box data from his flight has been tampered with, but investigator Claude Bechet rejects the accusations as outrageous.
They were trying to prove that the tapes had been tampered with, which we could not understand, because every recorder expert knew that it was physically impossible.
But there is one expert who believes the black boxes are suspicious.
Ray Davis is a former head of flight recorder analysis at Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch.
He has been hired by British television to review the French investigators' work.
It was a little bit of an eye-opener in a way in that, prior to reading the report, I had a totally different impression of the possible causes of this accident, whereas, when I read the report, there were so many anomalies and questions raised by the report that my whole attitude towards the accident changed completely.
Davis discovers evidence that could vindicate Asseline.
It raises questions about when the crew applied power to try to overfly the trees.
Takeoff/go-around power! While studying the black box data, Davis comes across a curious inconsistency.
French investigators had synchronised the black boxes with a transcript of air traffic control communications.
Davis examines the last conversation the pilots had with the tower before the crash.
It was recorded by both air traffic control and the plane's own black box.
(TAPE REWINDS) Ray Davis discovers a time discrepancy between the two recordings, amounting to a loss of several seconds.
According to the black box data, the aircraft was five seconds from impact with the trees when Captain Asseline commanded full thrust from the engines .
but, according to Ray Davis's analysis, this actually took place four seconds earlier.
This 4-second gap dramatically changes the calculus of the accident.
It's the difference between a normal delay in engine response and a serious malfunction.
(SHOUTS) Merde! Asseline claims that, on this particular occasion, the delay was more than he expected and, depending upon which side of the argument you come down at as to whether or not the 4-second delay in the digital flight data recording was real or not, then, you know, he's either an idiot or (LAUGHS) .
he's right.
The French justice system does not believe that Asseline is right.
After multiple appeals, Michel Asseline is convicted of involuntary homicide and sentenced to 10 months in prison.
Still, the controversy over the black boxes and the missing four seconds lingers on.
It promises to forever cloud the results of Claude Bechet's investigation.
The public opinion has thought, probably, "Oh, well, there was so much at stake.
"It was the future of the whole European aviation industry "which was at stake.
"So they managed to tamper the tapes so they could blame the pilot "and not the airplane.
" But this is just impossible.
The investigation into the Habsheim accident made several recommendations.
It calls for passengers to be banned on all demonstration flights.
It also calls for better reconnaissance of airfields by flight crews and they want airline procedures to be reviewed to ensure they conform with official regulations concerning altitude.
Michel Asseline went on to a career as a teacher and inventor in the aviation industry.
He continues to appeal his conviction and has devoted much of his life to clearing his name.
The tragedy at Habsheim would have little impact on Airbus industry.
The A320 would go on to become one of the most successful commercial aircraft in history, selling over 750 planes in its first 10 years and fly-by-wire technology would be safely adopted by a new generation of passenger aircraft.
Supertext Captions by Red Bee Media Australia