There is some good news to report as we approach the two year anniversary of the the Air France 447 accident in the South Atlantic during the late evening hours of May 31, 2009. An unmanned submarine exploration team headed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – the same group that found the Titanic – located the flight data recorder from Air France 447 on the ocean floor in 12,000 feet of water.
The flight disappeared without a distress call, other than a few last-minute computer-generated messages announcing electrical issues, some 750 miles northeast of Brazil that night taking 228 men, women and children, residents from 32 countries, to their death.
Two years later, there is little more than speculation about what brought the aircraft down offering few opportunities for closure of any sort to the grieving families, nor Air France, Airbus, the French BEA or anyone else wondering how and why. The recorder may offer some hope, provided it has not been damaged by two years of exposure to the sea.
An Abundance of Theories
Not surprisingly, there has been plenty of speculation. The flight plan called for the Airbus A300-200 to depart Rio de Janiero for Paris along a route that would drive it squarely through the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), an area near the equator with nearly calm upper-level winds. That lack of wind makes weather behave a bit differently from what we normally see in latitudes further north.
A translation from pilot-speak means that in the warm, moist air of the region, thunderstorms often grow unrestricted to enormous heights, some considerably more than 10 miles above the ocean surface making them impossible to fly over. Significant lines of storms were forecast along the route the Airbus planned to fly that evening, leading some to initially believe the experienced crew flew directly into the storms, or at least too close to them. Other experts believe the initial wreckage recovered indicates the aircraft hit the water in-tact, but at an enormous speed partially debunking the thunderstorm concept. Without solid data from the flight recorders, everything though, is likely to remain simply speculative.
The Cost of Answers
I chatted not long ago with Matt Bradley, vice president of business development at Vancouver-based Flyht, a commercial aviation data collection and delivery company. I was more than a little surprised to learn that we could have had some useful answers about Air France 447 before the aircraft hit the water that night if real-time data streaming equipment had been on-board. Not long after I mentioned a similar idea in a June, 2009 TV interview on WGN, a source told me the technology was non-existent, as well as impractical.
After talking to Bradley, I wondered how a better understanding of the accident two years ago might have changed the industry. Would we have changed the A330 airspeed probes or was that simply a great sound bite? Was it some operational issue that took the aircraft outside it’s normal performance envelope? Was it the way the pilots attempted to penetrate to thunderstorms that was the problem? Imagine if we’d known the answers two years ago.
Bradley – an A330 pilot himself – said not only does the data-streaming technology exist now, but that it did at the time of the Air France 447 accident. The Airbus simply didn’t have the equipment installed. One simple reason is money. Bradley said a unit installed on the Airbus could have run somewhere “between $35,000-$50,000,” with similar prices for installation on Boeing, Embraer and Bombardier airframes. Then of course there is the cost to stream the data.
Another reason? “Because the public hasn’t yet demanded it,” he told me. Of course, how could they when no one knows the options even exist. But airframe manufacturers knew it existed in 2009.
Bradley did tell me that full-time data streaming really IS impractical, not to mention some system to analyze those enormous amounts of information. At least it’s impractical right now.
That doesn’t mean an airplane couldn’t regularly phone home with a short burst of vital operational data so people knew what was going on every so often. The maintenance messages the Airbus did send were pretty much useless for figuring out what happened that night. Or what about an “emergency” button a crew or computer could trigger with useful data when things get hairy?
Certainly maybe every commercial airplane doesn’t need this capability, but airplanes flying the Atlantic, the Pacific or the polar regions certainly should employ it. They carry life rafts for emergencies. Why not emergency data transfer capabilities?
When I mentioned this story to a bunch of magazine journalists in New York this weekend, to a person, each thought the capability already existed on international flights. No one could understand how in this day and age, with the state of technology, that an airline could lose an airplane at sea and have no idea what happened for two years … assuming again the recorder delivers something valuable
Honestly, I can’t understand not having this device aboard an international airplane either.
Rob Mark, publisher