Report: Air France Pilot Resting As Plane Plunged

May 27, 2011

The captain of the Brazil-bound Air France plane that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009 was not at the controls when the plane began to plunge, according to the first formal report from France's Air accident investigation bureau.

The flight recorders recovered from the crash, which killed all 228 people on board, show that the captain was out of the cockpit for a routine rest period when the jetliner started to descend at a sharp angle from 38,000 feet.

"At the time of the event, the two co-pilots were seated in the cockpit and the captain was resting," read the report, which was released Friday.

Co-pilot Pierre-Cedric Bonin, 32, was at the controls as the plane went down and was sitting to the right of a second co-pilot, David Robert, 37. Pilots on long-haul flights often take turns at the controls to remain alert.

Capt. Marc Dubois returned to the cockpit about a minute and a half after the autopilot disengaged at 2:10 a.m. and 5 seconds Coordinated Universal Time, which is equivalent but more precise than GMT.

He did not take back the controls, and the two co-pilots tried without success to bring Flight 447 out of a stall and stop it from plummeting into the ocean.

The black box recordings stopped at 2:14 a.m. and 28 seconds — just under eight and a half minutes after the co-pilot at the controls advised the cabin crew that "you should watch out" for turbulence ahead.

But turbulence was not excessive as the plane, which had stalled three times, tried to negotiate a normal path passing through a heavy layer of clouds.

The highly technical report did not analyze the data or cockpit conversations or assign blame. It also did not, for instance, suggest whether the plane's Pitot tubes — speed sensors that investigators have said likely played a role — were the main cause or whether Dubois' temporary absence from the cockpit had any affect on the quickly unfolding events.

The last recorded measurement showed the plane plummeting at a rate of 10,912 feet per minute (124 mph). The flight recorders were found last month along with bodies in the latest search of the ocean depths last month. So far, searchers have not found the plane's Pitot tubes.

A full report on the crash is not due until next year.

Frank Browning and NPR's Eleanor Beardsley contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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