The mystery of Air France flight 447

Experts try to piece the tragedy together, without the help of a black box, cockpit recorder or confirmation of the wreckage


Air France

[UPDATE: Brazilian military pilots have spotted aircraft debris in the area where flight 447 is believed to have gone down. An airplane seat, a life jacket, metallic debris and signs of fuel were found in two areas about 60 kilometres apart in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. However, no signs of life were detected in either area.]

Twenty-four hours after Air France flight 447 disappeared off air traffic controllers’ radar screens, precious little is known about the circumstances surrounding the event. And the bits of information that have come to light provide almost nothing in the way of an explanation about why an aircraft that’s widely considered to be among the safest in its class never reached Paris after departing Rio de Janeiro.

ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA: Searching for wreckage — and answers : Speculation is rampant, but crash investigators in the case of Air France Flight 447 are focused on the facts

The Airbus A330-220 jet left Rio as scheduled at 6:19 p.m. (all times EST) with 216 passengers, including one Canadian, plus 12 crew members, aboard. At 9:30 p.m., the crew informed air traffic controllers in Brazil the plane was approximately 565 km from the city of Natal in northeastern Brazil and was on track to enter airspace managed by controllers in Dakar, Senegal, in about an hour. Fifteen minutes later, the pilot reported nothing unusual as the plane left airspace controlled from the Fernando de Noronha archipelago travelling at a speed of 840 km/h and flying at an altitude of more than 10,000 meters. That’s when the plane is believed to have run into what’s been described as a “a towering wall of thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean.” Officials on the ground wouldn’t hear from the plane again until 10:00 p.m., when an automated message from the aircraft indicated it had suffered from an electrical failure. And then, nothing. Flight 447 was never heard from again.

According to pilot and blogger Miles O’Brien, the aircraft had by then reached a notorious region known as the intertropical convergence zone, “where Northeast and Southeast Trade Winds meet, forcing a lot of warm, moist air upward which condenses—an efficient thunderstorm producing machine.” It’s unknown whether any of the plane’s backup electrical systems were working at the time. An Air France pilot told the French newspaper Le Figaro there are four redundant power sources aboard the aircraft that can provide at least limited amounts of electricity should the primary system fail. In addition to a backup electrical system, the planes are also equipped with a battery, a motor that’s generally used on the ground, and a wind turbine that’s deployed to generate electricity. “For the captain to entirely lose the ability to control the plane, all these systems would have to be damaged,” the pilot said. “It strikes me as unlikely.”

Equally murky are circumstances surrounding the lack of communications. Even after an aircraft is outside traditional radar coverage, officials can usually communicate with its crew through a variety of methods, said one industry official who requested anonymity. These include the use of high-frequency radios, satellite communications, or a direct link between controllers and pilots that works like SMS text messaging. Officials will also ask other aircraft who are within range to try and contact the plane. A full-scale communications search generally takes about 20 minutes, after which controllers will dispatch a rescue team if it proves fruitless.

Initial speculation hinted the plane may have been struck by lightning, but doubts linger over whether lightning strikes can in fact bring down a modern jet. They are, after all, built to withstand regular lightning strikes, which are thought to occur at least once a year to every single commercial plane in operation in the U.S. In a 2006 article for Scientific American, Edward J. Rupke, a senior engineer at Lightning Technologies, Inc., wrote that the U.S. hasn’t suffered a crash caused by lightning since 1967 thanks to the sophisticated systems meant to diffuse a lightning bolt that are built into every aircraft. “Although passengers and crew may see a flash and hear a loud noise if lightning strikes their plane,” Rupke wrote, “nothing serious should happen because of the careful lightning protection engineered into the aircraft and its sensitive components.” Furthermore, at least two other jets are believed to have travelled through the same area at around the same time without any problems.

Wagdi Habashi, a professor of aeronautical engineering at McGill University who’s studied plane crashes in the past, cautions that it’s foolhardy to try to explain a crash without the benefit of any physical evidence. Until the plane’s wreckage—including its black box and cockpit recorder—are recovered, there’s virtually no way of knowing what happened to flight 447. “If there was a fire, [investigators] will find melted pieces of metal that are bent and burnt,” Habashi says. “If it exploded in mid-air, then the pieces of the aircraft will be much smaller than if it just landed on the surface of the ocean and broke.” But even then, investigators may not be able to quickly piece the story back together. Figuring out what caused it to have to land on water or what caused it to explode may require even more time-consuming research, he says.

For the time being, none of the plane’s 228 passengers have officially been declared dead. That won’t happen until the wreckage is found. But officials have already all but conceded it will soon rank as the the deadliest commercial airline disaster since an American Airlines flight crashed in the New York City borough of Queens in 2001, killing 265 people. Calling it “a catastrophe like Air France has never before known,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had already met with “a mother who lost her son, a fiancee who lost her future husband. I told them the truth.”

ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA: Searching for wreckage — and answers : Speculation is rampant, but crash investigators in the case of Air France Flight 447 are focused on the facts


The mystery of Air France flight 447

  1. My condolences to all families.

  2. My condolences to all familes,who lost the love ones.

  3. it seems almost impossible to believe that in one moment so much could happen that can take you far, far away from a beloved one!.. only the people who have suffered in this accident (what must have been going on in the minds of the ill-fated passengers when all the chaos was happening to the plane?)….God save their souls..its worst to be missing when hope is still left for the lost ones to come back & when no last rites can be performed!..God please bless the lost ones & their relatives to bear with this huge grief & give hope for the future!

  4. Ground the Airbus?

    Used in law, science and philosophy, a rule known as Occam's Razor requires that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex, and/or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.

    We do not know if Air France Flight 447 was brought down by a lightning storm, a failure of speed sensors, rudder problems or pilot error. What we do know is that its plastic tail fin fell off and the plane fell almost seven miles into the ocean killing everyone aboard.

    Article at Consortium News:

    Article at Global Research:

    William John Cox

  5. For the last ten years there hasn't been a technical reason why the digital flight recorder data isn't sent in real-time to the ground (see the BBC/Equinox video “The BOX”, 2000, on the flight recorders). Then with-in a couple of seconds you have the planes position/location, its attitude, velocity, etc. safely stored on the ground and used for flight safety, aviation security and cost reduction. This data used in real-time could have also prevented 9/11 (see We presently have the viable technology to securely do this. This information could be used for flight safety, aviation & national security and cost reduction to the flying public. We presently don't know what went wrong on Flight 447, but we would surely know where the plane went down, when it went down, why it went down and possibly could have saved lives.

  6. The real-time use of the data recorders will save a substantial amount of lives, make our country safer and reduce the cost of flying. Telemetering the flight data to the ground in real-time would assure that we have the data – in many crashes the flight data isn't recovered (e.g. 9/11, et al) or has errors in it since no one is looking at it, or using it in real-time to find malfunctions. Yet, this valuable digital flight recorder data (DFDR) data has been left to the autopsy mode for post mortem simulations and not utilized proactively in real-time to save lives. We got our astronauts back from the moon by ground personnel monitoring the data in real-time. It was the ground personnel that found the problem and relayed back to the capsule the safe solution that saved the astronauts lives. Yet, the real-time data has been intentionally withheld and stored on operational planes for fear of aviation industry litigation.

  7. This, Air France flight 447, is another example of horrific crashes that possibly could have been prevented and saved lives. We surely would be able to use the flight data to prevent recurring crashes of this type and to minimize the anguish of the passengers families and the cost and time of trying to recover the recorders. The aviation industry has always attempted to minimize their liability. They fought against flight recorders and lost. Now they are fighting to keep the information going to the flight recorders industry private even if that jeopardized national security and been responsible for countless aviation fatalities. Their lobby is so strong that they have put a Titanic clause into all fights over international waters. This Titanic (warsaw) clause limits a family member of a passenger that is killed in a flight to a small fraction of the persons earning capacity even if the industry is found at fault. This has been printed in fine print on the back of every ticket.

  8. they lost every thing now and i cant belive it 1 thing can do it 1 thing can take it all down sorry to all those who lost there family even baby could of been on it it is just upsetting