Fault that killed 228 still hits BA passenger jets

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Grieving relatives are calling for swift action after it emerged three British Airways flights have suffered the same fault that led to a crash claiming 228 lives.

Two BA pilots had to make emergency landings after systems were sent haywire in a chilling echo of an Air France crash four years ago.

The 2009 flight was brought down by a technical fault and relatives of UK victims have been stunned to learn the same suspect device can still be found on Airbus jets flying today.

The suspect pitot sensors rely on small metal tubes to feed vital air speed and other data to the cockpit and to the plane’s computers.

If they freeze up, computers shut down the autopilot, forcing the crew to regain control of the aircraft, often in hazardous weather conditions.

After the crash, replacement of French-made pitot tubes with newer American ones was speeded up in larger Airbuses. But an aviation dossier reveals the same tubes used in the doomed jet also disrupted three British Airways flights last year.

Accident investigation bodies overseas have also raised concerns about the devices.

In the first BA incident, on April 20, 12.30pm, a BA Airbus 321 carrying 183 passengers from Stockholm was battling through storms near London to land at Heathrow when its instruments went haywire after a lightening flash, leading the pilot to signal a PAN (Possible Assistance Needed and Pay Attention Now alert) and divert to Stansted.

Jumping the queue of air traffic and with no instruments to tell him his speed, he touched down safely using skills taught in a simulator.

The second incident was on June 16 when the same BA Airbus 321 was flying 183 passengers from Edinburgh to Heathrow. It was climbing through cloud when all its speed readings dropped to zero, jumped back to normal, then fell again.

Again the auto pilot shut down and the crew took the controls to exit the cloud, allowing the instruments to stabilise so they could land safely at Stansted.

Both incidents were flagged up at the inquest into the Air France crash death of Arthur Coakley, 61 from Sandsend, North Yorkshire, and Londoner Neil Warrior, 48, last week.

But there was also third event, on August 20, 2012 when a similar British Airways Airbus hit a minus 23C air pocket at 26,800ft sending its readings awry but this time they took longer to recover.

In 2009 the Air France Rio to Paris flight crashed with no survivors because the co-pilots were not trained to fly the jet manually at high altitude.

Six Britons died including Mr Coakley. The inquest was told an international investigation is under way into pitot tubes and the European Air Safety Authority and Airbus say the rules are not strict enough.

Arthur’s widow Pat said: “I’m not an engineer – just a victim. But it is quite a shock the problems are still going on.”

Victims’ solicitor James Healy-Pratt said: “We still don’t understand how ice crystals can form in the sensors.

“It’s not clear why the smaller Airbuses – of which there are many more than bigger ones – don’t have the American probes. It’s a real hole in air safety.”

The Air Accident Investigation Branch report will be forwarded to the French judge investigating whether corporate manslaughter charges should be brought.

Aviation expert Adrian Gjertsen said: “Ice and aeroplanes do not work very well. Aeroplanes are designed to pass through it but not remain in it.

“One thing that came out in Air France is if you have thunderstorm activity you are more likely to get ice – but it is not something you can always fly around.”

British Airways said: “We train our pilots to the very highest standards including how to respond to these type of events.”

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