Air France 447: The Cost of What We’ll Learn

By Robert Mark on May 1st, 2011

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.

Flight recorderThe 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

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20 Responses to “Air France 447: The Cost of What We’ll Learn”

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  2. Elaine Says:

    Rob, I’m certain it won’t come as a surprise to you that equipage cost is among the main reasons why NGATS is no farther along than it is.

    I could expand on that idea, but fear it would quickly devolve into a political rant that would serve very little purpose.

  3. German Mora Says:

    I don’t get it: 50,000 is like a 0,05% on a 100 million price tag plane. I bet that the ordinary entertainment system on every plane flying over the Atlantic well exceed that cost. Having to choose between an mp3 player option or a couple of airbags in my car, I go for the airbags if I happen to like a car of a dealer fool enough to find logic in that offer. Decades ago seat belt were not installed in every car, hopefully soon when we could see a simulation of a flight crashed just some hours after it happened, we will say “how they did it before without this tools?”

  4. Felipe "Hupiscratch" Andrade Says:

    Cost and lack of urgency is what make these accidents happen. How many accidents, for example, could be avoided if a ground radar or a wind shear detector were made on-line or repaired ASAP? The lack of urgency sometimes is even a greater reason then cost to explain not implementing safety equipment.

  5. @williamAirways Says:

    Elaine is correct. Cost is why existing airplanes are equipped with less than state of the art technologies. German Mora, you’re assuming an airline will only need to equip a single airplane. Many airlines have a large fleet of airplanes. The cost of equipment installation is more than just the hardware. It also include labor, and lost revenue because the airplane has been pulled out of service for this installation. So multiply the cost for each airplane by the total number of airplanes the airline has, and suddenly, it’s not a small invoice anymore.

    You can’t rely on a pilot to push the magic “panic” button when things go awry. If the pilots have been incapacitated, there will be no one to push any buttons. A recent jet crashed because the pressurization system failed and the pilots were out cold. No button pushing there.

    Data link CVR/FDR transmission integrity is probably where the technological challenge reside. People freak out when a DNS server fails and people on the Internet can’t get to their blogs. I’m sure this won’t go over well when an airplane crashes and the end result is, “sorry chap, something affected the plane’s data link and well, all the data was corrupted and some data segments were lost in transmission…probably a passenger with a cell phone on.”

    Interestingly, I was just informed by the local TRACON that some airliners have experienced radio communications failure due to cell phone/wireless device interference. The crew reported that their radios had uncommanded frequency changes on departure three times. It wasn’t until the crew physically examined every passenger’s electronics and turned them off was the issue resolved.

    I’m sure remote CVR/FDR data links are coming and the technical issues will be resolved. However, I’m sure the pilot groups will have a field day about their on-job privacy and rally against such devices.

  6. Robert Mark Says:

    But the technology already does exist.

    And yes, for an airline like an Air France/KLM to equip and set up the parameters of when to send a data burst is not insignificant.

    But think about what this accident is going to cost the airline … one heck of a lot more than 50K times 300 airplanes and data time, not to mention the significant blemish to the carrier’s reputation that they had no idea what happened to their airplane … and still don’t, two years later.

    But Matt Bradley from FLTHT is probably right. Until the public demands it, nothing will happen, unless someone within the industry takes up this banner.

    Imagine if the daughter of the President of Embraer had been on board?

  7. LRod Says:

    I’m guessing you’re not an IT person. The cost per airplane is certainly an issue. But there are a gazillion channels per FDR and you think there’s technology available at reasonable cost to stream ALL that data? We’re talking satellites, you know. The bandwidth is enormous. And we haven’t even mentioned collecting and storage. Doesn’t sound workable to me.

    Also, is there something unusual about 10 mile high thunderstorms? Isn’t that 50,000 feet? Sounds like an average summer in the Midwest. I regularly worked airplanes deviating around T’storms that the SigMets were advertising as “tops in excess of 50,000.'” I don’t think you need any particular convergence zone for that.

    LRod
    ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired

  8. Robert Mark Says:

    LRod:

    I’m not an IT person by profession if that’s what you’re asking. Does that mean you are?

    I do actually understand some of the issues you mentioned. I thought I spoke to some of them which is why I agree full-time data streaming is impractical.

    But are you telling me that with the compression software available today, an airplane couldn’t send a burst out at a critical moment, or upon pilot request and send information about the top couple of dozen parameters of aircraft performance?

    That doesn’t sound impractical to me at all.

    But you have me on the 10 mile Thunderstorms. It should have said “considerably taller than,” or some such thing. They easily climb into the 60’s which makes them impractical to go over and often form lines that require hundreds of miles of deviations.

    BTW, I’m going to go fix that T-Storm comment. Ah the wonders of on-demand media!

    Thanks for your comment.

  9. LRod Says:

    I’m not an IT person by profession–I’ve only been playing at it for 30 years or so. I took the bulk of the discussion to be the question of “streaming” which implies continuous. You’re now saying bursts at impromptu times. The bandwidth difference between the two can be enormous. Moreover, bursts could very well miss some critical anamolies–much like the short email blasts from AF 447, which makes me think unless we truly are streaming, there’s a better than even chance in any critical juncture that we’ll be no better off than we are now.

    LRod
    ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired

  10. LRod Says:

    Oh, and don’t worry about the T’storms. 50K or 60K–with the vast majority of ops maxing out in the high 30s, even tops as low 40K are significant problems.

    Yes, I’m aware of Lears operating in the 50s…

    LRod
    et al

  11. Mark Jones Jr Says:

    Rob,
    Do we need evolution in our capability? Sure.

    Why international flights? Not sure you made that point clear.
    Thanks,
    Mark

  12. Robert Mark Says:

    I thought I mentioned bursts in the story which I agree makes a huge difference.

    And you’re right, the right burst at the wrong time might well be ineffective. But look at how useless those maintenance messages the airplane generated have been.

    If the NTSB suggested the top dozen parameters for a burst, that would later allow them to form some sort of opinion on what was going on, that would have to be better than what we have, wouldn’t it?

    Of course this may all fall by the wayside if the data on the two recorders is useful. But if for some reason what they have turns out to be junk … then it’s really going to get ugly.

  13. Robert Mark Says:

    To your question Mark, I mentioned international flights because it seemed like an way to be a little more cost-effective to an airline, as in not needing to equip every single airplane, but also that those are the aircraft normally outside radar contact for enormous lengths of time.

    In Canada and across the North Atlantic of course, they’ve managed to solve some of this with ADS-B. At least they have some idea where the airplane is, but it still wouldn’t provide any sort of useful data to cope with an Air France 447 accident.

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  15. john patson Says:

    Those maintenance messages were not completely useless. I think I am right in saying they were the first indication of something going wrong — Dakar ATC not being worried when the plane did not appear on their radars. They also led to the pitot tubes being changed — the crazy airspeed indications corresponded with previous incidents where the tubes iced up or filled with water. But to stream data from every commercial airliner flying out of radar range will be impossible — it is already difficult enough for the military to get enough bandwidth to keep the limited number of drones in the air under control, and satellites to create more do not come cheap.

  16. Robert Mark Says:

    Correct John. Full time streaming is impossible … at least right now.

    That’s why I was suggesting occasional bursts of concentrated data, not full time.

    Those would have to be better than the simple maintenance messages, although you are correct, they did offer a glimpse.

    Only the pure data will tell how important those pitot messages were. But anyone who flies IFR regularly knows there had to be a whole lot more going on at some point for an experienced crew to completely lose control of the airplane if the pitot iced up.

  17. L Pattenden Says:

    Just a note, airlines are forking out the cash to have inflight internet services and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. I like the idea of them having an ‘Emergency’ button to initiate data being messaged back, it’s a far cry from what we have now, 2 years later.

    So, Robert, I agree, occasional bursts or pilot/aircrew initiated bursts of data would be good.

  18. Lord Bart-Jan Mathot of Loch Leven and Glencoe Says:

    When we developed our STAR Hangar concept, whereby we would offer 15 of these Hangars in the northern hemisphere and another five on the southern hemisphere of the globe, we offered potential clients the benefit of the system mentioned above as a matter of safety, security and efficiency, as there would be a ‘real time maintenance’ opportunity. If one then off-sets the cost of installing compared to the savings we offer on the fuel consumption and carbon footprints of aircraft, it should be clear to the industry that things are terribly wrong.
    We have it from a Maintenance Manager of one of our major clients there, that only one of services we provided at Brussels International Airport, after taking in consideration our costs of supplying the service, saved that operator in it’s initial year the sum of $ 6.2 Million.
    Te market is there, the product and the services are there, but it seems that people in positions prefer cost cutting in order to “look good” on paper than making our industry safer.

  19. Frank Says:

    Saw the clip on FOX, quick to point out the stick (PARE) Obvious, I seem to remember at one of the airshows some time ago one of the Airbus series was being demonstrated and after crashing into the woods at the far end of the runway the surviving pilots reported the were trying to go around,yet the plane wanted to land ??

  20. Michael Says:

    May 30, 2011

    I heard Rob Mark’s comment on Fox News today and agree with one thing, the pilot still has to fly the airplane. I continue to be stunned to read the unqualified and amateurish conjecture presented about the tragedy of Air France Flight 447, attempting to explain why this Airbus A330 went down. Every news medium and government agency chiming-in are not going anywhere near the real reason. Simply stated, the airplane’s flight control system failed in an encounter with a violent storm and the vertical stabilizer broke off precipitating an out-of-control descent to the water.

    Even the single page article in USA Today, March 31, 2011, hits around the edges, but then, unknowingly and unwittingly clearly displays the real cause of the crash, the vertical stabilizer that broke off in flight. The crew and passenger’s families are being deceived by BEA/DGAC, Air France, the media, and Airbus about the causes being investigated and the airworthiness of these French built aircraft.

    The crown jewel of the conjectured reasons, the pitot tubes (the so-called speed sensors) icing over, mentioned as well, are only ancillary to the fundamental probable cause. The pitot tubes icing over might have precipitated the chain of events within the Aerospatiale computer operated flight control system of the A330, but any FAA or DGAC certified transport category airliner should be able to fly safely with no airspeed indication at all. It’s not difficult to do in a normal aircraft model using only power references and attitude control.

    I’ve personally hand flown transport category aircraft through violent weather on international trans-ocean flights for hours at a time, using only attitude reference and power setting alone – disregarding the air speed indication. You must disregard the erratic air speed indications that are caused by up-drafts and down-drafts within the cumulonimbus storm cells. Sooner or later in their careers, all professional pilots will be thrust into the situation where a violent storm cannot be avoided.

    There are two reasons why Air France Flight 447 crashed:

    1. The Aerospatiale Electric Flight Control System cannot be flown manually in violent weather, and the “normal flight control laws” that govern after loss of computerized control “full authority control laws,” and reverts to elevator trim and rudder control alone does not account for the possibility of the vertical stabilizer breaking off the airframe – which clearly happened. Flying an A330 with rudder and elevator trim alone, would be dicey even in perfect weather, to say nothing of trying it in a violent weather encounter such as what AF 447 saw.

    2. The Airbus composite vertical stabilizer broke off in flight due to turbulence of the storm encounter – look at the picture on page 9A of the USA Today article, for evidence of this! This is the same as when American Airlines Flight 587 Airbus A300-600 lost its vertical stabilizer – the airplane became un-flyable. According to the Aerospatiale literature again, the vertical stabilizers of the A330 and A300 are identically manufactured.

    This type of extreme weather flying is a once or twice in a flying career event, but you owe it to your passengers to be an expert at flying like this – or to avoid the weather if you can and divert. No matter how sophisticated or modern your airplane is, no matter how many computers operate the flight controls, the laws of aerodynamics and physics still apply to the air machine moving through the fierce storm of air currents, turbulence, rain, hail, lightning and icing. Be brave and resolute. Do not give up as you might have to fly like this for hours at a time in order to arrive safely at your destination.

    Air France is a world class major airline. Because the French built Airbus fleet is a wholly domestic aircraft, does not absolve Air France of the responsibility of openly and vigorously investigating this accident to the fullest, and being truthful to their passengers who place their lives in the hands (err,…computers) of their flight crews.

    Never forget, the best computer aboard the airplane is still the one between the pilot’s ears!

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