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I'm trying to track down a story about an incident involving an Airbus airplane my father told me about 25 years ago, when he was working at a Boeing supplier.

Reportedly, what happened was the airplane's autopilot was set to bring them in to a certain airport, and the pilots noticed that it was descending too early. So, they took over the controls, lined up manually, and at about a hundred feet up, the autopilot wouldn't let them descend further. So, they did a go-around, tried the approach again, and the same thing happened. At this point, they diverted to another airport and landed without incident. Turned out that the airplane's database had an incorrect position for their destination: the plane thought they were overshooting the runway, and wouldn't let them perform what it saw was an off-airport landing.

Was this based on an actual incident, or just one of the "Airbus airplanes don't let the pilot fly" stories circulating among Airbus competitors?

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    $\begingroup$ never heard of such accident nor such capability of the airbus autopilot. I put my chips on the second hypothesis. $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Jun 17, 2014 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ If you find a notable reference for this story, it being retold on a website or in a book, then its a good fit for skeptics.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Jun 17, 2014 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ @voretaq7: No, it didn't. The aircraft didn't start to climb because it didn't have sufficient speed for it. The computer did prevent pulling up further, but if it didn't the aircraft would have stalled with the same overall result. They were simply too late applying power (which the computer would have done for them much earlier if they didn't disable it!!) and nothing could have saved them at that moment. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jun 17, 2014 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Federico: which requirement? That a human can shut down the automation? I'd say this is a very natural requirement that causes no problem at all. $\endgroup$
    – Zane
    Jun 17, 2014 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ There is no such requirement that pilots must be able to override any automation in an aircraft. Simple example that this is the is FADEC systems for engine control. The FADEC computers know more about the engine at any given moment than any pilot (or two) can process in their heads. Gone are the days of having to monitor temps to make sure you don't burn up your very expensive turbofan engine. And yes, FADEC is avionics -- aviation electronics. $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2017 at 19:48

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I believe this is a hoax1. I've read through several documents describing the protections provided by Airbus flight laws (this is not autopilot; autopilot is a separate layer on top of it) and have never seen any mention of any kind of ground proximity protection. Only standard (E)GPWS which yells "terrain, pull up".

Update: Of course now there is EGPWS that gets aircraft position from GPS and can yell "terrain, pull up" when there is no airport ahead, but 25 years ago there was only GPWS based on radar altimeter which didn't know anything about position and would switch to simply read out2 the radar altimeter value whenever gear (and maybe also flaps; not sure here) was extended.


1Might have been even attempt at FUD against the then novel technology.

2That is say "one thousand", "five hundred", "two hundred", "one hundred", "fifty", "forty", "thirty", "twenty", "retard"3 (and "ten" or "five" when it stops saying "retard" and the wheels are not on the ground yet). This is useful during approach so the pilot can concentrate less on the instruments and more on outside reference and in the final phase to help judge when flare should be initiated. It will also warn "sink rate" when the sink rate is excessive (more than -1000 ft/min, the stabilized approach criteria).

3At 20 or so feet, if the thrust levers are not in idle gate, the Airbus system starts announcing "retard" and keeps announcing it until the thrust levers are placed in the idle gate (or reverse). This is specific to Airbus. I believe it can also announce "minimums" when approach minima are configured in the flight management system.

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I would categorise this as an urban legend, as there is no this kind of function or protection in Airbuses. Any protection will not kick in until you are trying to exit aerodynamical envelope of the aircraft.

But many of these stories are based on true events, as early Airbus pilots were mostly experienced second-generation-jet pilots, who just couldn’t wrap their head around with new technologies A320 offered. As the pilots could not understand what the flight management system was doing, they disconnected it with various level of success and told the stories as they perceived it.

It took decades for the industry to actually understand the complex interaction between the pilot and the machine and to develop levels of training required to operate these modern aircraft. Paradoxically, now that pilots understand better all the modes of the system, they have less hesitation to take over manually when required.

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This urban legend has been going around for ages and one flight (not sure if it was the start or if there were others) which started the myth that Airbus pilots are just along for the ride was the LH2904 accident in WAW.

In this case, the spoilers and reversors did not deploy as the conditions for deploying were not met resulting in aircraft going off the runway at highish speed.

The cause of the accident was pilot error with contributory factor of aircraft system/lack of guidance in the AOM. link to accident report here

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