The haunting and tragic news of Air France's missing Airbus A330-200, which mysteriously crashed into the Atlantic Ocean during a flight from Brazil to France, has left the aviation industry in confusion. Departing from Rio de Janeiro, flight AF 447 was making its way to Paris Charles De Gaulle International Airport on 31 May 2009 with 216 passengers and 12 crew on board, when air traffic controllers lost contact with the aircraft reportedly 565km off Brazil's north-eastern coast. No distress signal was sent by the pilots and to date the strongest clue remains a data message sent via satellite network reporting electrical and pressurisation problems.
Air France has since set up support centres for relatives and friends of the victims, which include 61 French and 58 Brazilian passengers, and initially suggested to reporters that lightning could be a possible cause of the crash, while other sources have speculated tropical thunderstorms and heavy turbulence as possible scenarios. Given Air France's position as a major commercial airline and the Airbus A330-200's stature as one of the industry's most dependable long-haul jets, the incident appears one of the most devastating in modern aviation history.
Stringent safety and emergency guidelines are operated by major airlines such as Air France that account for unexpected weather hazards and periods of sudden turbulence. As an independent flight operations consultant and training specialist for UK aviation consultancy firm AirScript, Pete Griffiths has first-hand experience of the A330 from his time as a pilot and a Civil Aviation Authority inspector. He says that even before flight AF 447 had departed from Rio de Janeiro, the aircraft would have undergone comprehensive testing.
"The crew would first carry out the pre-flight check but as the flight is transatlantic, it would have also undergone an extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards (ETOPS) test, which is a more in-depth check of the systems. This would take an engineer roughly 30 minutes to complete," Griffiths says.
The crew onboard flight AF 447 included a pilot with 11,000 flight hours' experience, 1,700 of which were with the Airbus A330/A340. The two co-pilots also had a shared 3,400 hours of flying experience with the Airbus models.
"The pilots onboard would have undergone extensive safety training. On top of their commercial pilot licence, they would be type-qualified and have done at least 12 sectors of line training with an experienced captain. As part of the system, they would also be tested on a simulator to check their knowledge of the systems and ability to fly the airplane in normal and emergency conditions.
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"I gather the captain had sufficient flying hours with the aircraft, which was taking a typical transatlantic route, so it seems they would have had plenty of experience coping with those weather conditions. Certainly every time you fly, you are on the watch for spatial storm clouds and the radar is used to steer around them."
The lack of contact during the aircraft's journey has been one of the most mysterious aspects of the incident. An Air France spokesman has confirmed that several of the plane's mechanisms had malfunctioned, preventing it from contacting air traffic controllers. Yet, the fact the plane disappeared from the radar without a mayday call has caused grave concern – particularly in regards to rescue efforts, which are still ongoing.
"The aircraft would have started off using a short-range VHF radio, which probably covers a couple of hundred miles.
The crew would then switch to a high frequency long-wave radio or perhaps even satellite communications. What is established now is a data link, whereby the pilot doesn't speak to a controller but has constant text communication," Griffiths explains.
"Of course they should retain contact throughout the journey, but voice communication would only be at designated communication points, which are often at every one degree of longitude or approximately 30 minutes. During a storm, communications equipment could be interfered with and sometimes it is difficult to remain in communication with an aircraft."
The failure of flight AF 447 to reach Paris Charles de Gaulle International Airport is one of several air disasters in 2009. In January, a US Airways airliner on a domestic flight was forced to land on the Hudson River in New York. While all 150 passengers onboard escaped safely, other recent flight incidents such as the Boeing 737 which crashed into the central Russian city of Perm in 2008 have led to fatalities.
"There have of course been scenarios like this in the past. Another that occurred over the Atlantic was Air India flight 182 in 1985, when a Boeing 747-237B exploded at 31,000ft due to a bomb onboard. This could be a similar scenario – no one knows at the moment," Griffiths says.
Debris from the aircraft was spotted 650km off Brazil's coast and navy vessels are continuing to comb the area for the rest of the wreckage. In particular, search teams hope to retrieve the all-important 'black box', which contains cockpit voice recordings and instrument data that would most likely offer the best explanation of how the airliner vanished.
However, with some experts fearing that waters in that territory can reach depths of over 4,000m, a mammoth task lies ahead for the search teams. Until they do locate the box, if indeed they do at all, it is difficult to know what lessons, if any, the aviation industry can take from the incident.
"The Airbus A330 is not a new airplane – it is a well-proven, reliable aircraft and it is hard to imagine finding something that radically alters the way the airplane is operated or creates a need for major modifications," Griffiths adds.
"If this had happened to an obscure airline, one might speculate it was bad maintenance or bad crew procedures, but when you are talking about an airline like Air France, those sorts of things are extremely unlikely. It's a well-run airline and the pilots are well trained. Whatever has gone wrong will probably be down to bad luck and it could have happened to anyone."