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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

03 June 2009

The Disappearance of Air France 447

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.


Anonymous said...

come on bob, shit happens? that's the best you have to offer? theorize for a moment: what was the altitude, or likely altitude at the time it disppeared, and what does it mean that last transmission was of an electrical problem. when, or more to the point, where in space relative to the earth, there's some hard facts that are known, and while you are obviously angry at all the looney conjecture out there, use your expertise and THINK about it so maybe you can be value added to a breaking story.

Anonymous said...

Hey Bob From BBC: According to the report in Brazil's Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper, citing an unidentified Air France source, the doomed airliner's pilot first sent a message that he was entering thick black clouds of a type normally associated with violent winds and lightning.

This is the documentation of the seconds when control was lost and the aircraft started to break up in air

Ten minutes later a series of electronic messages were sent from the plane indicating that the autopilot had disengaged and that a computer on board had switched to an alternative power system.

The controls needed to keep the aircraft stable had also been damaged, the newspaper report says, and an alarm sounded, suggesting the situation was becoming increasingly grave.

This cascade of messages ended with one pointing to a loss of air pressure and electrical failure.

The French authorities who are leading the investigation into the causes of the crash declined to comment.

A US aviation safety expert, Bill Voss of the Flight Safety Foundation, said the Brazilian newspaper account strongly suggested the plane had broken apart in the air without explaining why.

"This is the documentation of the seconds when control was lost and the aircraft started to break up in air," he told the Associated Press.

It is clear, our correspondent says, that the only definitive explanation will come with the recovery of as much debris as possible and, crucially, the flight data recorders.

Bob Barbanes said...

To Anonymous #1: Yep, shit happens. Every pilot I've spoken to about this accident has done the same thing: Shrugged and said, "Who knows?" You ask what of value I can add to this breaking story? The answer is NOTHING. Nobody can "add" anything until we know some more facts.

Which is where Anonymous #2 comes in. Yes, yes, subsequent to the blogpost to which these comments are attached, we now know that, just as I suspected there were a whole bunch of messages from the plane (in a 10+ minute time frame) indicating trouble with systems. But people are latching onto the report of this pilot's sighting of "CB's" as The Reason for the crash.

I would prefer not to...oh, what's the term..."rush to judgment." For instance, I love how some officials have come out and said that it was definitely *not* an act of terrorism - or at least that terrorism had been ruled out. Really! Well isn't that nice and comforting to know. I hope they're right. They do too.

Me, I'm under no delusion that air travel is or can ever be made absolutely safe. I know that as long as these complicated machines are piloted through chaotic weather by human pilots, there will be the possibility of "something" going wrong. You know, shit happens.

If anyone has a problem with that, then perhaps they ought not ever leave their house.

The FAA issues guidelines to us pilots on how far we should avoid thunderstorms. They say 20-miles. But it's wrong to take that as some inviolable rule that nature must observe. Nature has her own rules. I know of one pilot skirting around a thunderstorm at a distance he felt was much more than sufficient. Yet his plane was still struck by lightning. It was damaged, but fortunately, it did not turn into one of Scary Mary's "atom bombs."

Maybe we'll know more, maybe we won't. I just read somewhere tonight that the data-bursts from the Air France plane tell us the story of the crash unfolding, but they do not - and cannot - tell us the reason behind the crash. And that is true.

But before I believe that the highly-experienced cockpit crew of AF447 deliberately flew into an area of thunderstorms so intense that it tore the plane apart, I'd want to know what other planes were in the area and what they experienced? I'd want to see the satellite imagery.

It is silly...it is ALWAYS silly to speculate on the cause of any disaster immediately after it happens. Modern aircraft don't just come apart in the air or crash inexplicably. When they do, there are usually only a few reasons why. Weather, yes. Structural failure, yes. Human element, yep (see Egypt Air 990). "Outside" influences (e.g. rocket attack or bomb on board), yes.

Let's hope we can eventually find out more about this terrible tragedy. If it turns out that it was something as "simple" as a pilot flying too close to a thunderstorm...well...it wasn't the first such case and it likely won't be the last.

Anonymous said...

Wow that Scary Mary seems too incompetent and irresponsible to hold office! Maybe, in the near future there will be full real-time telemetry and cockpit voice relay buffered via satellite making it much easier to determine the cause of such disasters instead of relying on 'black box' recovery.