Investigation into the accident sequence of Air France flight AF447 has revealed that the Airbus A330 did not enter the abnormal attitude law after it stalled, despite its excessive angle of attack.
The abnormal attitude law is a subset of alternate law on the aircraft and is triggered when the angle of attack exceeds 30° or when certain other inertial parameters – pitch and roll – become greater than threshold levels.
Alternate law allowed AF447's horizontal stabiliser to trim automatically 13° nose-up as the aircraft initially climbed above its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000ft.
The stabiliser remained in this nose-up trim position for the remainder of the flight, meaning that the aircraft would have had a tendency to pitch up under high engine thrust.
Crucially the abnormal attitude law – if adopted – would have inhibited the auto-trim function, requiring the crew to re-trim the aircraft manually.
After stalling, the A330's angle of attack stayed above 35°. But while this exceeded the threshold for the abnormal attitude law, the flight control computers had already rejected all three air data reference units and all air data parameters owing to discrepancy in the airspeed measurements.
Abnormal law could only have been triggered by an inertial upset, such as a 50° pitch-up or bank angle of more than 125°. "That never occurred," says French accident investigation agency Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses.
The BEA is still attempting to explain why AF447's crew failed to rescue the aircraft after it climbed to 38,000ft and stalled. The pilot's control inputs were primarily nose-up, despite the stall condition.
There has been no indication that the aircraft switched into any other control law, other than alternate, during the accident – suggesting that auto-trim was available throughout the descent.
Failure to realise a need for manual re-trim was central to the loss of an AirbusA320 over the Mediterranean Sea about six months before the AF447 crash.
The auto-trim had adjusted the horizontal stabiliser fully nose-up but, during a flight envelope test involving near-stall, the aircraft switched control laws and inhibited the auto-trim.
Without manual re-trimming, the aircraft pitched up sharply as the crew applied maximum thrust. It stalled and the crew lost control.
In its conclusions over the accident the BEA highlighted the rarity of the need to trim manually, which created a "habit" of having auto-trim available made it "difficult to return to flying with manual trimming".
"One of the only circumstances in which a pilot can be confronted with the manual utilisation of the trim wheel is during simulator training," it said. "However, in this case, the exercises generally start in stabilised situations."
In the wake of the A320 accident, near Perpignan in November 2008, the BEA recommended that safety regulators and manufacturers work to improve training and techniques for approach-to-stall situations, to ensure control of an aircraft in the pitch axis.