12 June 2009

Air France 447: Software Risk Underestimated?

At least one observer speculated that the crash of Air France 447 may have been caused by a software failure. Most reports have focused instead on pitot tubes (speed sensors), but as an ABC News story put it, "Virtually no hypothesis or theory about what happened is off the table."

Information Week's Paul McDougall was one of the earliest to suggest a software failure of some sort -- based not particularly on the specifics of Air France 447 or the Airbus 330, but a reminder that there had been recent problems with the Air Data Inertial Reference Unit (ADIRU) on previous flights. McDougall and others may or may not be onto something here, but there is reason to be concerned about software-enabled systems reliability and the complex interdependency that evolves between pilots and the fly-by-wire technology that supports them. 

Meanwhile Time Inc added to the speculation about possible technology failures. Revisiting that same previous ADIRU failure on a Quantas flight in October 2008,  Time's Jeffrey Iverson suggested that the Quantas investigation had not reached a satisfactory conclusion:

. .  . Even if there are recommendations to be made, it's unlikely they will come anytime soon. According to an aviation source close to the Australian investigation, Qantas remains perplexed by the phenomenon, finding that since October 2008 that particular A330 has never suffered a repeat ADIRU failure, even when flying the same routes under similar conditions. "So it's something they need to get to the bottom of," says the industry insider, who requested anonymity. "Because it's so unpredictable — it happens one time, and then never happens again — they're still trying to work out what it is." 

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