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

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