A320 Down: Speculation

We all saw the news this morning. A 24 year old A320 flying for a Lufthansa-run budget airline flew straight into a mountainside in the French Alps.  It looks like, in the cryptic language of aviation, a CFIT event – Controlled Flight Into Terrain.

And of course, the overriding question is “why”.

Let’s speculate.

It could’ve been in-plane terrorism.

If Abu Jihad got into the cockpit, he could’ve flown the plane well enough to crash it. That’s not hard to do: anyone with a handful of hours on a flight sim could achieve that limited goal.  But why crash into a mountain – why not turn around and pull a 9/11 on any of the many cities along the Med coast?

It could’ve been terrorism from outside of the plane.

Perhaps as it overflew Marseilles, a person on the ground was able to damage (or take control of) the autopilot system and force it to initiate a descent.  This is where fantasy technology meets conspiracy theories, so I’ll leave it to the black helicopter crowd.

It could’ve been poor maintenance.

The plane came out of the shop yesterday. As we all know from experience with our cars, the best way to get something to break is to fix or replace a part connected to it. This was, after all, a 24 year old aircraft.  And Murphy’s law clearly states that if something can go wrong, it probably will.

So maybe it was just that – old plane, MX uncovered something marginal or broke something, which lead to sudden decompression with the predictable results.

It also could have been a software glitch.

This is much more interesting, and I think, more likely.  The A320 famously crashed when unveiled, as its “fly-by-wire” system ignored pilot inputs during a low pass over a French airfield, and calmly flew the aircraft straight into the tree tops.

Again, this is an old aircraft, and its software was developed in the 1980s. We’ve all experienced strange, impossible-to-duplicate (but nonetheless very real) events with our PCs, like when the machine suddenly decides to format a drive or delete a document or engage in some other unanticipated antics, apparently entirely at random. With all computers, but especially older computers, the bizarre is uncommon, but not impossible.

So, perhaps the avionics suddenly blue-screened, locked up the control systems by ignoring cockpit inputs, and left the pilots with no options other than riding out the inevitable.  Horrible scenario, but easily imagined.

My strange theory – unintended auto-land

I’ve got a theory, which is a variant of the “software glitch” scenario – that this airplane’s glitch caused it to initiate an “auto land” mode, and the crew was unable to override it in time.

I’m suggesting that the flight control computer decided, for an at the moment unknown reason, (but probably something in the electricals and avionics went sideways), that it was damaged and/or uncontrollable, so it chose to select its last-ditch backup option – attempt to auto-land at the nearest airfield.

Except that the avionics were damaged enough to be wrong about the location of that nearest airfield, so it flew into the mountainside that it didn’t know was there.

For me, that kind of an avionics-related event is the best explanation of why it descended, slowed to less than 200 kts, then leveled out and flew into a mountainside.

Now let’s get the facts.

I’m publishing this before 9 in the morning west coast time, and will not do any edits – not even to fix obvious typos, which is death to my inner editor.  Instead, I’ll just let it stand and see how this lines up with what those in the know will eventually tell us in the next few days.

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