What happened to Air France Flight 447?

As news continues to trickle in about the Air France accident more pieces of the puzzle emerge. Here's what we know so far: no bodies have been found floating in the crash area (as of this writing); the ECAM alerting system automatically reported multiple failures prior to lost contact (the Airbus has the capability of sending data on the aircraft's systems directly to maintenance); there was severe weather in the area; there is a possibility of an explosion caused by a terrorist attack.

So let's look at the known facts and see what they tell us. I'll start with the bomb scenario. There has been some speculation about a bomb because of an earlier bomb threat on a different aircraft. But what would the chances be of a bomb going off at the exact time that the aircraft entered an area of severe weather? It's zero. Plus no one has accepted responsibility for such an attack. There is no chance that a bomb brought the plane down.

How about the multiple system failures? I was initially surprised to hear the head of Air France state that he had little hope for survivors considering that he made the statement before the wreckage had even been found. That tells me he had more information than he was divulging. That information was released today and it concerned the multiple failures, which indicates the plane broke apart in flight.

What about the lack of bodies? Other accidents involving aircraft that have ended up in the water all have had bodies floating near the wreckage. That tells me that the fuselage was in tact at the moment of impact. It tells me that everyone was seated with their seat belts fastened (as would be the case on an aircraft about to enter an area of expected turbulence).

So that leaves the weather. Why would a pilot continue to fly into a thunderstorm? This may come as a surprise to some, but the weather and communications capability of an airliner flying over the Atlantic are about the same as they were when Lindberg was flying mail over the midwest. The only thing they have is the on-board weather radar system. Cessna 172s used as flight trainers have better weather capabilities. You would think that in this day of satellite communications that the plane would be in constant contact with air controllers. This, however, is not the case. When you fly across the Atlantic you communicate using an HF radio to a person on the ground who has to relay your requests to Air Traffic Control. It's sort of like talking on a ham radio. Add into this the new RVSM (reduced vertical separation minimum) and you have a case where a pilot who needs to change altitude or direction because of weather may not be able to get clearance in time before reaching the weather. In a region where there is a large area of bad weather and numerous aircraft needing to deviate this becomes a problem because that lone guy working the HF frequency becomes overloaded with requests. If the pilot deviates without clearance he risks the chance of deviating into the path of another aircraft. This is what I believed happened in this case. They saw the weather. They asked for a deviation or different altitude and wasn't able to receive a clearance in time to do so, so they picked what they thought was the best course through the weather. Unfortunately, they picked wrong.

Update 1

So now they're saying that there is no wreckage. That would explain the lack of bodies. This story gets more compelling by the minute. They spotted a pallet and claimed it came from the plane. Didn't make sense to me then and now we know it wasn't from the plane. But what about the report of seats and life preservers? That was the report that convinced me that they had found the crash site. Now nothing is certain including the reported oil slick.

I've heard a lot of reports recently about problems with the airspeed indicators. Now I don't have any more information than what has been publicly released. But I find it hard to agree with the theory that the pitot tube iced up from super cooled water droplets. First of all, there isn't just one pitot tube. There are three. One for the captain, one for the first officer, and one for the standby system. Additionally, the pitot tubes are heated. So none of the claims about frozen pitot tubes makes sense. Without having the actual data in front of me, my best guess is that the weird speed indications were an accurate representation of what was happening with the aircraft when it ran into severe turbulence. You only have to fly into a thunderstorm once to know how dangerous they can be. A thunderstorm with tops to 50,000 is a super cell. String four or five of those together and you have a bad situation.

My theory remains that they saw the weather on the radar. They tried to avoid the weather by requesting a change of altitude and or heading but was unable to receive a clearance in time. So they were forced to try and pick their way through. The plane experienced severe turbulence that caused structural damage (like a wing breaking off). That would explain the speed fluctuations and multiple system failures. The plane then spiraled down to the ocean's ssurface.


  1. […] is going to be a lot of interest in this story as it develops. I gave my opinion in the article What happened to Air France Flight 447. The find comes one month shy to the day of the accident. Interestingly enough, it also comes one […]

  2. […] been following this accident from the beginning, including speculating on the cause in my post What Happened to Air France 447. My theory about the accident was that the plane ran into severe weather and, as a result, most […]

  3. […] Roger Rapoprt does a good job of covering events leading up to the accident and the subsequent search for the missing aircraft, but the book suffers from being rushed to publication before the final accident report was released. Writing a book like this takes an enormous amount of time and effort. I should know. I spent over five years writing and researching my book 35 Miles From Shore about another airline disaster – the ditching of ALM Flight 980. There is no doubt that this is an intriquing story. A plane mysteriously crashes into the Atlantic. What happened? How did it happen? Where was the missing plane? But since the answers to many of these questions weren’t known for more than two years after the accident, the author was forced to speculate throughout. And had the plane not been found, that’s all anyone could have done, including me in my post, What Happened to Air France Flight 447? […]

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