Vital engine software files accidentally wiped, linked to fatal A400M plane crash

Three out of four A400M plane engines failed after data was 'accidentally' deleted on the computers that controlled each engine, causing the plane to crash and burn.

Airbus A400M crash related to accidentally wiped data on computers that controlled the engines
Credit: Curimedia
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If you’ve ever deleted a vital piece of software, or had it flagged and accidentally quarantined by antivirus, then you know it can cause your computer to go crazy and even crash. When a plane’s vital software has been deleted, it too can crash; investigators suspect accidentally wiped computer files to be the cause of a military plane crash.

An Airbus A400M military transport aircraft crashed three miles from Spain’s Seville Airport on May 9, killing four of six crew members. The A400M was conducting a pre-delivery test flight before it was to be delivered to the Turkish Air Force in June. The $22.5 billion plane has four engines and each engine is run by a separate computer, called an Electronic Control Unit (ECU). The current theory being investigated involves the accidental deletion of computer files known as “torque calibration parameters.” Reuters reported the “computers operating each engine cannot work if this data, which is unique to each of the turboprops, is missing.”

It was previously reported that shortly after takeoff during this A400M’s maiden flight, new software may have “cut off the engine-fuel supply.” Although pilots had attempted to switch malfunctioning engines into “flight idle mode” in order to return to the airport, “the aircraft struck power lines, caught fire and hit the ground.”

Two days after the crash, Spanish authorities yanked “Airbus’s permit to fly production aircraft being prepared for delivery.” Of the countries which had already accepted deliveries of the plane, Germany, Malaysia, Turkey and the U.K., suspended flights of the A400M, but France did not; later European NATO buyers were reportedly “instructed not to use the Airbus computer system that was used to conduct the software installation on the A400M.”

On May 29, Airbus Chief Strategy Officer Marwan Lahoud confirmed “that incorrectly installed engine control software caused the fatal crash.” Then on June 3, Airbus said investigators had confirmed that engines one, two and three experienced power freeze “after lift-off and did not respond to the crew's attempts to control the power setting in the normal way.”

A source also confirmed to the BBC that investigators believe torque calibration parameters had accidentally been deleted during a software installation process. The BBC explained that the A400M is heavily automated. “The ECUs take the pilot's inputs and make the engines they control respond in the optimum way. The parameter files are used by the ECUs to interpret sensor readings about the turning force generated by each engine - the torque - which is used to make the attached propellers spin. Without the files, the ECUs cannot make sense of this data.”

The newest version of engine software was released last year; “regulators approved it on the basis that the chances of failure were small and the installation procedure included extra checks.” Yet a Spanish news site claimed that in order to make up for A400M delivery delays, “several safety protocols were ignored during the final assembly of plane;” also the computer system which controls the plane’s engines "should have been tested before, in a simulator, to check if everything worked."

Pilots were supposed to receive any engine data problem warnings at 400 feet in the air. One of A400M’s safety features was that if an engine did not receive “vital data parameters,” then it was to automatically shut down. This was a deliberate design choice meant to stop “out-of-control engines” from powering back up and causing other problems.

Reuters added, “This is what the computers apparently did on the doomed flight, just as they were designed to do.” A person familiar with the engines added, “Nobody imagined a problem like this could happen to three engines.” When it did, without the data parameters it was impossible for pilots to keep the aircraft airborne.

If you've never seen an A400M in action, yet you are a Mission Impossible fan, then if you see the fifth installment, Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation then you will see Tom Cruise hanging onto an A400M for dear life during a stunt.

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