Why ARE so many planes falling out of the sky? A spate of disastrous crashes reveals one terrifying common flaw... Last updated at 11:32 PM on 07th August 2009 Three hours into the flight, none of the 216 passengers would have had any reason to be concerned. As the dinner plates in business class were being cleared away, the beaches of northern Brazil, 35,000ft below, were slipping past at 550mph. Some of the passengers might have ordered an after-dinner drink, others might have been crawling beneath their blankets, hoping for a few hours' sleep. Unbeknown to the passengers, the route of Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris was taking the four-year-old Airbus A330 through one of the most turbulent patches of air on the planet, a region above the Atlantic riven by towering storm clouds. But this should not have been a problem. The A330 is one of the most advanced airliners in the world and equipped with every safety system available. Captain Marc Dubois had worked for the airline for 21 years and had 11,000 flying hours under his belt. Despite protestations over safety records, there has been a spate of air crashes in the last year or two And besides, this was Air France, a flagship carrier of a large western European nation, with one of the best safety records of any airline in the world. What happened next is still shrouded in mystery and, indeed, might never be known for sure. Initial reports suggested that the aircraft broke into pieces in midair after encountering severe turbulence, perhaps caused by the violent vortices and updrafts of a tropical storm. Later reports suggested that the aircraft simply stalled, its crew confused by faulty airspeed readings, before plunging into the ocean more than six miles below. The plane was certainly too high for a bird-strike, and there has been no suggestion of terrorism. But whatever the cause, the result was the destruction of the plane and the tragic loss of all 216 passengers and 12 crew. It was the deadliest crash in Air France's history. Until the 'black box' flight recorder is recovered - and as it lies at a depth of 12,000ft on the abyssal floor of the Atlantic, this might never happen - the crash of Air France Flight 447 on June 1 this year remains one of aviation's great unsolved mysteries. Mystery crashes such as this have punctuated aviation history. But a spate of accidents in the past two years has led to speculation that something is amiss, something which seems to be making planes fall out of the sky. Some are even suggesting that a serious problem has arisen, which is being ignored by airlines and the authorities - and that if this problem is not addressed soon there will be more large airliners plunging to earth for no known reason. This year has seen the usual smattering of crashes and near-crashes involving small planes run by small airlines in remote corners of the world. But four weeks after the Air France crash, there was another unexplained Airbus disaster. This time, it was a Yemen Airways flight from Sana'a to the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. Of the 153 aboard, only one survivor was plucked from the sea, a 14-year-old girl. This year, there have also been serious accidents in Turkey, Thailand and Congo. And in the past week alone, there have been three more incidents: a Continental Airlines flight, which nearly came to grief in severe turbulence over the Gulf of Mexico, and, on Tuesday, a Bangkok Airways flight, which crashed on the island of Ko Samui. The latest incident came on Wednesday, when an Airbus A320, operated by Spanish carrier Vueling, caught fire on the runway at Paris Orly Airport. So, what is going on? Some have pointed the finger at Airbus. Its aircraft have been involved in a number of recent high-profile crashes. Airbuses are famed for their advanced electronics, their cockpits festooned with computer screens and electronic trickery. Could these aircraft simply be too clever for their own good, bombarding the pilots with torrents of brain-scrambling data? And could they be too susceptible to software glitches? Otherwise, in an age of shrinking profits and outright losses, could airlines simply be cutting back on costs, skimping on safety checks and saving on maintenance - as well as pushing their crews to the limit? One thing is clear - most plane crashes involve small aircraft operated by minor airlines based in poor countries. Twenty years ago, many Third World nations simply did not have their own airlines, and relied on western carriers if they had air services at all. Now they run their own planes on a shoestring, with poorlytrained pilots. The disasters duly follow. Some of the debris from the missing Air France flight was eventually recovered The EU, for example, publishes a roll call of airlines deemed too dangerous to fly into Europe. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone has 58 airlines on the banned list. But as more and more of us fly to farflung destinations - it has been calculated that at any one time, a million people are in the air worldwide - a growing number of tourists find themselves on a plane whose service history might be less than impeccable. An increase in the number of dodgy Third World planes, however, is only part of the reason air safety has started hitting the headlines with such regularity. Amazingly, as recently as the Sixties, you were ten times more likely to be involved in a serious aviation incident than you are now. Accident rates fell steadily throughout the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Everyone expected them to continue falling - at least among First World airlines. But they haven't. Many things can cause an aircraft to crash. According to Boeing, more than half of all serious incidents are down to 'flight crew error'. A sixth are caused by mechanical faults, 13 per cent by the weather, and the rest by factors such as terrorism, air traffic control problems, bird-strikes and poor maintenance. Electronic 'fly-by-wire' controls - in which there is no direct physical link between joysticks, pedals and the actual flying surfaces - are often blamed for accidents, but in fact not a single serious incident has been blamed on this technology. Fly-by-wire is, say most experts, a red herring. As is the 'Airbus link'. There are now only two major manufacturers of large commercial airliners: Airbus and Boeing. Any newsworthy crash is thus most likely to involve either a Boeing or an Airbus. The number of crashes involving Boeings and Airbuses is more or less equal. Critics say that aircraft manufacturers tend to overemphasise human error as a cause of a crash - rather than accepting that their planes might be at fault. Even so, it is clear that the most likely thing to kill you on a plane is your pilot. It is impossible to calculate the amount of information a pilot must manipulate in their heads, particularly during take-off and landing. Dozens of figures and readings, from fuel levels and airspeed to the temperatures of various components, will be flashing up on screens and dials around them. It takes skill and, most importantly, an awful lot of training to handle all this. No wonder manufacturer Boeing estimates that pilot error is responsible for 55 per cent of all serious incidents. But aviation safety expert David Learmount, of Flight International magazine, believes the real problem lies with training, rather than the pilots themselves. 'Aeroplanes are getting better, but safety has stopped improving for an entire decade for the first time in history, because pilots are not being properly prepared for flying modern, highly-automated aeroplanes,' he says. He stresses that this is not the pilots' fault. Nor is it the result of corner-cutting by the airlines. The problem is deeper, and more institutionalised, than that. In short, he says, modern pilots spend the first part of training flying old-fashioned aircraft. To qualify to fly the actual airliners that will be part of their job - and operate the complex computer systems in them - they then spend hours and hours in a simulator. During this simulator time, however, their basic flying skills can become rusty. Instead, they become increasingly dependent on electronic aids and spend far too little time practising old-fashioned skills which they might need when those aids fail. Most importantly, experts believe there is far too little emphasis on what to do if they are faced with an anomalous or confusing reading - the training systems tend to assume the computer read-outs are always 'correct'. 'Today there is still no compulsory training for pilots in what they should do when computers fail,' Learmount says. 'They don't get any practice at manual flying when they are doing their job managing the real aeroplane either, because they are trained always to use the aeroplane's automatic systems in preference to manual flying. Seventeen people died in the Aria Air Airlines crash in Iran back in late July 'So they may get training in the old-fashioned skills when they are originally learning to be pilots, but that's the last time they practise them until such time as there's an emergency, and then it's too late!' Mr Learmount is something of a thorn in the side of the aviation establishment. But his views are shared by many in the industry. After a near-disaster involving a Thomsonfly Boeing 737 at Bournemouth Airport two years ago, for example, the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch cited a recent Civil Aviation Authority study. It stated: 'Pilots familiar with operating older aircraft which had more variable reliability are nearing the end of their careers, and there is a generation of pilots whose only experience is of operating aircraft with highly reliable automated systems.' This means that they can sometimes miss the basics when those complicated automated systems fail. The Thomsonfly incident, for example, was caused by the crew's failure to notice something really quite rudimentary: that due to a technical problem, their airspeed had dropped dangerously low. As Learmount says: 'To coin a cricketing analogy, crews today are like batsmen practised only in receiving lots of fast, straight deliveries. What they actually need is training for the occasional googly.' Carolyn Evans, head of Flight Safety at the pilots' union Balpa, agrees - and worryingly suggests the media picks up on only a fraction of incidents. 'There are a lot of small incidents happening that are not necessarily being picked up outside the industry,' she says. 'There is a lack of basic skills.' The CAA, which regulates commercial aviation in the UK, defends the use of simulators as a vital part of pilot training. 'You are not going to practise a double-engine failure on a 747, on a real plane, out of Heathrow,' says a spokesman. But he added that training, particularly in relation to equipping a new generation of pilots for the planes they will actually fly, has been a matter of concern. 'The issue is, how do pilots know what to do when these systems do not work?' Last year, British Airways did start a voluntary system of 'recurrent training' which allows them more flexibility in training their pilots for what modern aeroplanes demand. It is a step in the right direction. Flying is generally safe. Indeed, there has not been a fatal air crash in the UK since the Kegworth disaster in 1989. Moreover, the pilots employed by carriers such as BA, Virgin, Qantas, Lufthansa and American Airlines are the best in the world. In fact, it is actually impossible to rank these world-class carriers in terms of safety simply because they have so few accidents. But flying is not risk-free, much as the airlines would like to persuade you otherwise. Flying is only the 'safest form of travel' if you take passenger miles into account - a dubious statistic, as by definition flights tend to be long-distance. If you look at deaths per million journeys or per million hours - the more meaningful figures used by the airline insurance industry - flying fares rather less well, coming out worse than car or train travel, but still safer than cycling or motorcycling. So, given that air crashes do appear to be generating more headlines than normal at the moment, what can you do to avoid becoming another one of the statistics? Well, studies have proved that following a few simple rules will improve your chances of landing safely at the other end. First, never, ever, fly with an airline you have never heard of, particularly in Africa, the former USSR, or Indonesia. If the plane looks dodgy or the pilot looks drunk - a surprisingly common occurrence in some parts of the world - don't get on. I remember crossing Borneo in a tiny plane, whose doors were locked shut with a piece of twisted wire. On the seat next to me was a box of live chickens. We flew through a thunderstorm. The experience was disconcerting. But I was lucky. Where you sit also matters. People within six rows of an emergency exit are significantly more likely to survive, provided they take note of where the exit is (always read the safety card and locate your nearest way out). There is some evidence that sitting near the back is slightly safer, and stronger evidence that the aisle seats are less risky than by the window. A depressing number of casualties result from people finding themselves unable to open their seatbelts, which buckle rather than snap in like a car's. Finally, hope your pilot is up to speed with the latest systems and, more importantly, can go back to basics if things go wrong. A generation ago, many commercial pilots were ex-RAF, trained to dogfight and cope with every eventuality. That generation is now retiring, replaced by young men and women for whom the cockpit of a modern airliner resembles a computer game more than anything. And tragically, sometimes, the computer crashes. And sadly, sometimes, so does the plane.