The solution to a stall – to any kind of stall – is to get some speed back. Anyone who’s driven a car up a hill knows the car slows at a certain point for want of fuel. The solution is to gear down, increase speed and climb the hill. The familiarity of the manoeuvre conceals the fact that it’s counter intuitive – learner drivers have to be taught to gear down, the opposite of what they expect. The solution to AF447’s stall was counter intuitive, too. Bonin could have put the nose down, got up speed and returned the plane to altitude. But that required specialist training he didn’t have. The others did, but for them to be able to use it they had to know that the nose was pointed up. Bonin neglected to tell them; pulling up was the obvious thing to do, so far as he knew.
Although Brian Lenihan knew he had to get the economy back up to speed, he didn’t know why it was stalled in the months after 29.09.08, when Anglo hid the extent of its indebtedness and insolvency. It therefore seemed reasonable to consider recapitalising the banks, thinking that if they had money they could lend it to customers and return the economy to growth. On the 2nd June 2010 Brian Lenihan announced a two billion euro injection into Anglo Irish Bank. That put on the airbrakes. The problem was not how little money was going into Anglo but how much was leaving it. The economy stalled as Anglo haemorrhaged money. At a certain point the counter intuitive solution that would have got the economy back up to speed – letting the bank fail – stopped being an option. The economy’s fate was inextricably linked to Anglo’s; they were strapped in together, waiting for the bottom.
“We’ve reached level one hundred,” Bonin said, meaning ten thousand feet.
Manoeuvring out of the stall was touch and go below that height. Airbus 330 was a large plane that required time and space to move. AF447 had been falling out of the sky for some two minutes by now.
“Climb, climb, climb, climb!” Roberts said, at four thousand feet.
The secret saboteur released his grip on Bonin. He confessed when it was too late to do anything to save anyone:
“But I’ve had the nose up for a while.”
Captain Dubois understood the situation immediately.
“No, no, no! Don’t go up! No, no, no!”
The remaining seconds must have seemed like hours to the only man who grasped what was happening. Roberts took his cue from his captain. “Controls to me! Give me the controls!”
Bonin did what he was told, sounding both relieved and a little miffed
“There,” he said. “You have the controls.”
Roberts took over without the grasp of the situation his captain had. Dubois shouted:
“Watch out there, you’re pitching up!”
Bewildered Bonin chipped in: “Well we need to, we’re at four thousand feet.”
The Airbus detected the ocean at two thousand feet. Its warning system’s computerized voice seemed to mock Bonin:
“Pull up. Pull up. Pull up…”
A few seconds later, Pierre Cedric Bonin said his last words: “But what’s happening?”
Everyone needs to know the answer to that question. A team of experts searched the ocean floor for two years to answer it. The black box recordings led to improved training programme that better equipped pilots for emergencies. They convinced Airbus to replace the pitot tubes on its entire fleet. And they provided air crash investigators with an insight into how pilots cope with pressure. The disaster contributed to the greater store of human understanding – a slim consolation to its victims and their heartbroken loved ones.
When David Drumm resigned as chief executive of Anglo he said that the appointment of a new chairman would give the bank “an upward trajectory.” Brian Lenihan said there was “clear blue water” between the old version of the bank and the new one, following nationalization in January 2009. In reality the bank changed its name to the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC) on the 14th October 2011. Anglo Irish Bank ceased to exist.
The meeting of the 29th September 2008 took place in Government Buildings, one of the most secure venues in Ireland. It was attended by people with access to modern recording equipment, personal and professional, digital and analogue, audio and visual. Yet there is no public record of what happened that night. Nobody disappeared, or was never heard from again. Nobody was physically harmed. In fact everyone who was there, with the exception of Brian Lenihan, is still alive today. Still we know less about the night of the bank guarantee than we do about the Air France disaster.
There is only one conclusion to draw. Finding out what democratically elected politicians said that night is harder than finding a missing plane off the coast of Brazil. It’s harder than discovering what three French men talked about as they fell to their deaths at a velocity of a hundred and eighty feet a second. And it’s harder than diving to a depth of two miles in the sea to find a briefcase-sized object and return it to the surface. That cannot be. If we can’t answer Bonin’s question, we strap in together. We fly in the dark without instruments. We pull up.