AirAsia QZ8501 has parallels with 2009 Air France AF447 crash into ocean in 45 seconds or less

The jet dropped from the sky swiftly, without a mayday call, and was quickly swallowed up by the waves.

It took nearly two years to find the black boxes from Air France Flight AF447, but the Rio de Janeiro to Paris flight that fell into the Atlantic Ocean in the early hours of June 1, 2009, could offer insight into what may have gone wrong on AirAsia’s Flight QZ8501.

Both flights killed everyone on board, both were flying into storms and – in both cases – it seemed to the pilots of the Airbus that a climb was the way out of their predicament.

In the Air France flight, several factors converged to bring the plane down: the three pilots of the Airbus A330 were confused by faulty air-speed data after key sensors iced over.

Then, about 25 minutes into turbulence, the autopilot and autothrust cut out, and the pilot at the controls began a steep climb, despite requests from the co-pilot to descend.

The captain, who had been away from the cockpit, returned about 90 seconds after the first stall warnings sounded. 4 minutes and 23 seconds after the first alarms sowed panic and confusion over how to regain control of the aircraft, the plane slammed into the ocean. The wreckage was found 3,900 metres beneath the ocean, its black boxes intact.

Above the Java Sea, the pilot of the AirAsia Airbus A320 told air traffic control he was approaching threatening clouds, but he was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude. The plane lost contact minutes later. Search teams have not yet found the black boxes in relatively shallow waters of up to 30 metres.

The 2009 crash ended up being, at least in part, a lesson in the hazards of automation. During that time, deprived of autopilot, the panicking men flying the Air France flight took actions that made matters worse.

“We see more-sophisticated automation in the cockpit really serves us well, and by and large it creates a safer environment for airline passengers,” said Deborah Hersman, former chairwoman of the US National Transportation Safety Board.

“But there are times when that automation can become confusing, or there can be a disconnect between the pilots and the automation in the aircraft.”

CNN correspondent Tom Foreman likened the scenario to aquaplaning, in which a car travelling at speed on a wet road loses control when it hits a body of water and skids.

“Did it run into such severe changes in atmosphere pressure that at one moment, it was surging forward, next moment, it was being yanked back and it suffered a separation from the air flow?” he questioned. “If an experienced pilot is not at the helm to do a very good job, even an experienced pilot may have trouble, that pilot may have a hard time getting that control back, and in that circumstance, a plane like this could go from 32,000 feet to in the water in maybe 45 seconds or less.”