A big airliner on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappears over the Atlantic Ocean. The plane's avionics system sent a burst of transmissions back to the airline's headquarters indicating, we are told, electrical malfunctions and loss of cabin pressure. Only bits and pieces of the plane are found floating on the surface. Reports are that the "black boxes" may be lying so deep on the seafloor that they may never be found. Such is the case with Air France flight 447, a twin-engine Airbus 330.
So what happened?
Initial reports said something about turbulence and thunderstorms. This raises two immediate questions: 1) Could a bad thunderstorm bring down a jetliner? 2) Would airline pilots deliberately fly into such a destructive thunderstorm?
Taking the second question first, modern airliners like the Airbus 330 have excellent weather avoidance technology - much better than I have in my little helicopter. They have independant onboard weather-radar, and a satellite link to the airline headquarters that can provide additional weather information. Thus, airline pilots can detect thunderstorms well in advance and no, would not deliberately fly into one. But more than that, thunderstorms generate turbulence, and every airline wants their passengers to have a smooth, comfortable ride. Pilots go out of their way (literally) to avoid areas of turbulence if they can.
Can a bad thunderstorm bring down an airliner? Anything is possible. This is why we pilots avoid them. Modern airliners generally fly at altitudes higher than the most violent parts of a thunderstorm.
Needless to say, accidents like this call out the various idiots in the country who throw their two cents in. The former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, "Scary" Mary Schiavo has already raised the possibility of a lightning strike. Speaking on a CBS morning show she said, "For this plane, the difference is whether the lightning hit a fuel tank or got inside and took out the electrical system. It's like an atom bomb."
Oh for crying out loud. An atom bomb? This just tells us what assholes people like her can be. I've said it before and I'll say it again: You media whores...you fatuous morons who think you know something about something and just HAVE to get your face on camera...SHUT THE HELL UP!
Could it have been a lightning strike? It's possible - but not very likely. Could it have been sabotage or a bomb? Sure. If so, we might not know until some person or group comes out and claims responsibility for the act.
Do I have any idea at all what might have happened? I do not.
As dependable as we like to think air travel is, it's still risky. Planes have been disappearing out over the ocean since planes started flying across the ocean. It doesn't happen often, but it still does. And you know what? Sometimes we have no idea why stuff happens.
Take that TWA 800 flight in 1996 - you remember, the one that blew up after departure from Kennedy Airport in NYC one evening, within sight of people on Long Island. (TWA 800 was also headed, coincidentally, to Paris.) The NTSB came out with a "probable cause," tracing the explosion/breakup of the plane to an event in the center fuel tank area of the big plane. But they never said exactly what caused it. To this day there is speculation about what caused that crash, but nobody knows for sure. Or if they do know, they're not telling.
I'm sure the various governments involved will spare no expense to find the "black boxes." Time is of the essence though. Their little "pingers" that allow them to be found underwater only last about 30 days. Still, I'm confident they will be found. Whether they will reveal the answer to this mystery remains to be seen. Meanwhile, all we can do is shrug our shoulders and chalk it up to the fact that nothing is perfect. Hey, shit happens.
Unless you're Mary Schiavo. Then you go on CBS and talk about lightning strikes and atom bombs.