I’m thinking about the loss of Air France flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, and what troubles me is the apparent suddenness of the disaster.
The plane was entering a zone of weather activity and the pilot reported that the plane was experiencing turbulence as it flew into a stormy area. Stratfor notes that the plane issued automated messages over a period of 4 minutes before being lost by radar. There were no human distress calls made. Fox News gives this chronology:
The pilot sent a manual signal at 11 p.m. local time Sunday saying he was flying through an area of black, electrically charged cumulonimbus clouds that come with violent winds and lightning.
Ten minutes later, a cascade of problems began: Automatic messages indicate the autopilot had disengaged, a key computer system switched to alternative power, and controls needed to keep the plane stable had been damaged. An alarm sounded indicating the deterioration of flight systems.
Three minutes after that, more automatic messages reported the failure of systems to monitor air speed, altitude and direction. Control of the main flight computer and wing spoilers failed as well.
The last automatic message, at 11:14 p.m., signaled loss of cabin pressure and complete electrical failure — catastrophic events in a plane that was likely already plunging toward the ocean.
The plane entered service in 2005 and was serviced most recently in April.
The fact that the pilot didn’t issue a distress call lends me to believe that the plane suffered a catastrophic event that prevented the pilot or copilot from radioing for help. This raises several questions:
1. Can weather cause the plane to break up? According to Fox News/AP, experts discount lightning – but that doesn’t mean that some other weather-related event could not have caused it.
But wouldn’t weather related events have caused a gradual catastrophe? If lightning had knocked out avionics, the pilot should have been able to issue a distress call. After all, the plane itself was able to transmit the automated messages.
Wind sheer could have stressed the airframe beyond tolerance and led to failure of its composite-based components and structures. Was the radar installed in the plane able to read the severity of the weather the pilot was flying in to? Experienced pilots would have avoided the storms and either adjusted course or gone higher to fly over them, but it’s possible that the pilot flew into a severe storm cell without knowing it.
Given the location of the event – in a zone characterized by frequent severe storms – weather may have played a role in the disaster. However planes just don’t suddenly break up in flight for no reason. Planes are strong and flexible aerodynamic structures that are designed to resist all but the worst weather extremes.
2. The detonation of a bomb on board would fit the facts of the disaster as it stands today. Reports – apparently unsourced and not fully confirmed – is that a bomb threat was issued against an Air France flight from Buenos Aires to Paris. Worse, the names of two passengers match two terrorists on a French watch list.
Consider what would have happened had Richard Reid been successful in his attempt to blow up an airliner with a shoe bomb. There would have been no distress calls. Automated messages would have reported the same cabin depressurization and systems failures. A bomb would be easier to get aboard a plane flying from a South American country to France rather than the opposite direction.
At this time we don’t have much evidence. The evidence we do have, although scant, supports either of these two scenarios about the same. So with equal evidence we then apply Occam’s Razor, the namesake of this journal. Given equal evidence the simpler of two explanations is most likely the one that is true. Either a unique weather event compounded by mechanical failure brought the plane down or a bomb did. At the time of writing Occam’s Razor favors the terror scenario.
Evidence is slowly being gathered and each piece can support one or the other of these two scenarios. It could also indicate something else completely. But today logic would seem to dictate that Flight 447 is the worst single terrorist event since September 11, 2001.
After the argument put forward by Gerard in the comments thread I was able to confirm that his assertion that the decompression message was one of the last to occur. Based on this I would have to revise my conclusion and state that the evidence isn’t equal anymore and in fact would favor the weather/mechanical failure argument. Occam’s Razor would therefore not apply in this situation (it only can be used with equally weighted evidence).
The link below is best source found so far that lays out the timeline of messages sent by the doomed flight.
Pay particular attention to the comments section which seemed to attract several intelligent comments from members of the aviation industry. The links to PDF’s giving the raw data of the messages with explanations are also worth reviewing.
In short the current theory is that the disaster is a combination of human error and weather which stressed the plane beyond its tolerances and led to its breakup over the Atlantic Ocean. As Gerard mentions in the comments section of this entry, it’s a pretty terrible way to go.
It is interesting to note that Eurocockpit places blame on Air France for knowing about the pitot tube problem and doing nothing about it.
Clearly, a few hours after the accident, the BEA, Airbus and Air France had heard the contents of messages and their meaning. Ils savaient qu’il s’agissait – de nouveau – d’un problème sur les tubes Pitot. They knew it was – again – a problem on the Pitot tube.
ATA 34 sous-ATA 11/15, et Air France et le BEA viennent nous parler de problèmes électriques, de foudre, de turbulences, d’orages, de FIT, de ZCIT, devant toutes les caméras du monde entier ? ATA ATA-34 in 11/15, and Air France and BEA come talk to us about electrical problems, lightning, turbulence, thunderstorms, of FIT, the ITCZ, before all the cameras around the world?