Air France crash raises troubling cockpit issues


Wednesday marks the two-year anniversary of the Air France flight 447 crash into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil.

The plane was on its way from Rio to Paris when it went down, and on Tuesday, the French government said remains of more than half of the 228 people who died have now been recovered. Many of the remains have been found in just the past week near where the flight recorders were located by the same team that discovered the wreckage of the "Titanic."

CBS News aviation and safety expert and former U.S. Airways pilot Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger said the recent revelations about what happened in the cockpit will resonate future generations of fliers.

"This Air France accident is going to be a seminal accident that will be studied for years, and we need to ask ourselves as an industry tough questions about the way we're designing airplanes, the way we're displaying information to the pilots in the cockpit. And about whether or not making airplanes more complicated, more technologically advanced makes it more difficult for pilots to very quickly intervene and very effectively act when things go awry," Sullenberger said.

Video: Inside AirFrance Flight 447 cockpit
Terrifying last minutes of Air France flight 447
Black boxes from Air France 447 crash intact

CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports that the cockpit voice recorder revealed that it was the youngest of the three pilots who was flying the plane when the Airbus A-330 malfunctioned and autopilot disengaged.

When a stall warning went off, the 32-year-old copilot initially pointed the nose down, as pilots are trained to do to pick up speed and lift. But when he leveled off and a second stall warning sounded he pointed the nose up. The plane began to rock, then stall, plummeting toward the Atlantic for three and a half minutes. Just one minute before the plane hit the water, he handed responsibility to the other copilot, who was 37, saying, "You have the controls," but it was too late.

The captain of the jet, who, at 58, was by far the most experienced of the three, had rushed back to the cockpit from a rest break, but it does not appear he ever retook the controls.

Sullenberger said that young pilot had to rely upon very early fundamental skills at the time, given the bad weather and the fact that it was nighttime. Unlike the Air France pilots, the advantage Sullenberger had when his US Airways jet went down in the Hudson River was that there was daylight.

"I could see the earth's natural horizon. I knew which way was up. All my speed sensors still worked. You have to realize how overwhelming and confusing this situation would have been for this Air France crew at night in the weather at the top of the storm. (It was) very turbulent, suddenly losing all their speed references, one of the most critical parameters (in) an airplane, and having to use only the aircraft's pitch attitude and thrust setting to maintain a safe flight. It would have been a very difficult situation and, unfortunately, in this case they were not able to solve their problem in the time that they had."

An Air France official defended the pilots saying: "We had an optimal level of competency in this Air France plane's cockpit. They were not able to regain control of the plane after it stalled."

It's not clear whether they could have saved the plane but it is clear they had only seconds to react.