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Airbus: spate of accidents doesn't mean planes are unsafe

Are the aircraft rolling off the production lines at European aircraft manufacturer Airbus unsafe? You would almost be forgiven for thinking so in the wake of the third Airbus crash this year and the hundreds of lives lost. The latest Airbus crash occurred en route from Yemen to the Comoros Islands, with 153 people on board the plane.
 
 
This year's first Airbus accident occurred in New York where a close encounter with a flock of birds caused both motors to fail. Fortunately it ended in a successful emergency landing in the Hudson River, with no serious casualties. One month ago, an Air France Airbus went down over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 people on board. And now an Airbus has crashed into the Indian Ocean near the Comoros archipelago.

 

Statistics undermine emotions
Statistically, there is nothing wrong with Airbus. The facts and figures contradict the emotional response to such a dramatic series of events. Airbus builds particularly safe planes which, thanks to their modern design and state-of-the-art electronics, fly many millions of kilometres each year without any problems. In this regard, it performs no better and no worse than its US rival Boeing. Rumours that the Airbus's fly-by-wire system and advanced electronics stop pilots from intervening in an emergency are unfounded.

 
Flying an Airbus on manual is difficult but perfectly possible. In its latest models, Boeing makes use of the same systems. In recent years, the number of aviation accidents has been split evenly between the two manufacturers. Accidents involving Ilyushins and Tupolevs are more common, but this is mainly the result of poor maintenance in the countries where these planes are used.
 

Extreme weather conditions
There are a number of similarities between the crash of Air France flight AF 447 and Yemenia flight IY626. In both cases, extreme weather conditions had a major part to play. In the case of the Air France flight, the plane is thought to have flown into a heavy electrical storm. While it would have been better for the pilots to fly around the storm, the weather system is believed to have been so extensive that this could have involved a detour of as much as 1000 kilometres.
 

The Yemenia Airbus also hit bad weather as it approached the airport at Moroni. The nearest alternative - Dzaoudzi-Pamandzi Airport - was several hundred kilometres away and has a very short runway. In this case too, the pilots opted to brave the extreme conditions.
 

Sixty percent of all accidents take place on the approach or landing. In 56 percent of cases, the pilots make an error of judgement, 17 percent are due to technical malfunctions on board the aircraft and in 13 percent of cases, the primary cause of the crash is bad weather.

 
The distribution of the wreckage over a wide area suggests that the aircraft disintegrated at high altitude. Given that an explosion has more or less been ruled out, the only possible cause remaining is that the aircraft endured a massive amount of excess pressure. This could well have been caused by an extremely ferocious electrical storm, possibly in combination with flying at much too high a speed.
 

Air France crash search called off

The search for victims and wreckage of the Air France Airbus in the Atlantic Ocean has now been called off. The hunt for the aircraft's flight recorders - or black boxes as they are often known - has proved fruitless. The devices are no longer transmitting a signal.

 
Yet even without the data from a black box, the cause of an accident can still be determined. Over 600 pieces of wreckage from the Air France Airbus have now been recovered. Medical examinations of the victims can also provided clues.

 
On the basis of all the information gleaned so far, it is almost certain that no explosion occurred on board the plane. The on-board computer sent a series of malfunction reports to the Air France maintenance division using high frequency radio. This fact indicates that the aircraft's electronic system, including all back-up resources, broke down relatively suddenly. There was not even time for the pilots to inform other aircraft on the same route using the standard emergency frequency.
 
The distribution of the wreckage over a wide area suggests that the aircraft disintegrated at high altitude. Given that an explosion has more or less been ruled out, the only possible cause remaining is that the aircraft endured a massive amount of excess pressure. This could well have been caused by an extremely ferocious electrical storm, possibly in combination with flying at much too high a speed.

 
 

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This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011 Dutch government’s decided to cut funding and shift RNW in 2013 from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW’s current activities can be found at http://www.rnw.org/about-rnw