When the National Transportation Safety Committee revealed the factual information on the QZ8501 accident, their 18 point press release and the questions and answers made on 29 January, revealed nothing that was previously unexpected. However, not long after that, Bloomberg and later Reuters, began running a story that the Captain was not in his seat at some point in the accident.

The Snowball

320-FBW-3

The Flight Augmentation Computer provides electronic control for the A320 rudder. (source: Airbus)

The revelation comes from unnamed sources “close to the investigation”, stating that the crew were switching off the aircraft’s Flight Augmentation Computers (FAC). Initially, most of the media wrote that “crew switched off critical computers before crash.” Well, the FAC is critical but switching them off, shouldn’t cause the airplane to crash. Some media did attempt to make the aircraft’s reconfiguration to Alternate Law for the flight control system as making the airplane hard to control, leading to the crash. Flying in Alternate Law is no big deal, although you must be aware that the aircraft no longer protects you from stalling, overspeeding, or rolling over inverted.

The media spin, has turned this item into a snowball.

The Avalanche

On Friday, Bloomberg reported that “one person/people familiar with the investigation” said that the after trying to reset the device the captain pulled the circuit breaker on the device (FACs). Reuters seemed to have made the jump from “switching the device off” to “pulling the circuit breakers.” This was the start of the avalanche.

  • The circuit breaker for the FAC, cannot be reached easily from the seat, so someone had to leave or stretch out quite far from his seat.
  • There is no Airbus procedure that asks for the crew to pull the circuit breakers to switch off, or reset the Flight Augmentation Computers on the A320.

Having a 2 reputable global media on this, obviously led to a global newsfeed frenzy pumping news of “captain left his seat” to all corners of the world.

My own little investigation

The skeptical me thought something does not seem right. Pilots do not make up procedures in troubleshooting. If global media can use unnamed sources, then why can’t I call my unnamed source. The difference being that my source isn’t someone familiar with the investigation, he is in the investigation team. So I asked.

The answer from my source, was that Bloomberg and Reuters may have been misled or got lost in the translations. The investigating team have not made such a conclusion or have not found evidence of the captain leaving his seat, presumably based on the conversations heard in the CVR. My source said that both crew were troubleshooting (with one flying and one troubleshooting), that FAC fault (unclear single or dual) was mentioned, and that the crew did not make up troubleshooting procedures as they went along.

As previously it was reported that the stall warnings did go off, it can be assumed that the aircraft was not flying in Normal Law (where the airplane is protected from stalls, overspeeding, or rolling over) but in Alternate Law instead. Combine this with previous news that the FACs were both switched off, let’s have a quick look at the DUAL FAC Fault procedure:

AUTO_FLT_FAC_BOTH

Enough talk of the circuit breakers. Let’s see if turning off the FACs require pilots to leave their seat. Here is the A320 cockpit and where the FAC switches are on the overhead panel:

320-Overhead-With-Crew-A

As you can see, it is reachable from the pilot seats. However, the captain may need to stretch or loosen his seat harness to reach the FAC2 switch, and the same for the first officer to reach the FAC1 switch. This, is very different from “leaving his seat.”

My Conclusions on the Avalanche

How did the story went from switching off the FAC to pulling the circuit breaker, and from stretching to reach a switch to become the captain leaving his seat?

My simple answer: it got lost in the translation!

Simple confusion from a writer not realizing that that resetting the FACs and switching it off involve the same push-button switch could lead to the belief that switching it off means pulling the circuit breaker.

The need to stretch to reach a switch, given language barriers (eg: if source and the media speak in different languages), can result in difficulties of the context of the captain’s movement in his seat. Combined with the confusion over switch vs circuit breaker, put the two together, and there you have it, “he must have left his seat to reach the circuit breaker.”

Mainstream journalists are mostly not aviation journalists, and often even their news bureau rely on aviation experts to convert the technical language into layman’s terms. This adds another translation barrier for the context to be conveyed correctly.

On sunday morning, one of the local media, Tempo, put out a piece stating that the NTSC denies the stories that the captain left his seat (link in Indonesian only). The Investigator In Charge was quoted, saying “Fiction! There was no such thing!” Unfortunately the article is titled “NTSC denies that Captain left the cockpit”, but luckily I know the author so I asked him if he meant “left the cockpit” or “left his seat”. The answer is: BOTH!

Let’s see if Bloomberg and Reuters will update their stories quoting the NTSC’s refuting that the captain left his seat.

UPDATE:
Late on Monday 2 February, Reuters has put out a story that the investigators say no evidence that the captain left his seat.