The 447 Mystery Deepens

With news from Brazil today that the debris recovered in the Atlantic does not come from Air France 447, the disappearance of the plane remains more of a mystery than ever.

The most interesting information I’ve come across so far is from Tim Vasquez, a former forecaster for the Air Force, in a guest post on Anthony Watts’s science blog, wattsupwiththat.com. Vasquez provides a fascinating, detailed meterological analysis of the 447 flight plan

Air France flight 447 (AF447), an Airbus A330 widebody jet, was reported missing in the equatorial Atlantic Ocean in the early morning hours of June 1, 2009. The plane was enroute from Rio de Janeiro (SBGL) to Paris (LFPG). Speculation suggested that the plane may have flown into a thunderstorm. The objective of this study was to isolate the aircraft’s location against high-resolution satellite images from GOES-10 to identify any association with thunderstorm activity. Breakup of a plane at higher altitudes in a thunderstorm is not unprecedented; Northwest Flight 705 in 1963 and more recently Pulkovo Aviation Flight 612 in 2006 are clear examples.

Back in the 1990s I did flight route forecasting for the Air Force. One of my assignments in summer 1994 was forecasting was the sector between Mombasa, Kenya and Cairo, Egypt for C-5 and C-141 aircraft. The Sudan region had tropical MCS activity similar to this with little in the way of sensor data, so this incident holds some special interest for me as one of our C-5s could easily have followed a very similar fate. Using what’s available to me I decided to do a little analysis and see if I could determine anything about the fate of AF447 and maybe through some circuitous, indirect means help give authorities some clues on where to look.

Vasquez goes on to explore the mystery of the flight’s disappearance in detective style, replete with photos,diagrams, detailed weather descriptions and navigational terms–not easy for the layman such as myself, but well worth reading. His conclusions:

Overall what we know for sure is weather was a factor and the flight definitely crossed through a thunderstorm complex. There is a definite correlation of weather with the crash. However the analysis indicates that the weather is not anything particularly exceptional in terms of instability or storm structure. It’s my opinion that tropical storm complexes identical to this one have probably been crossed hundreds of times over the years by other flights without serious incident.

Still, in the main MCS alone, the A330 would have been flying through significant turbulence and thunderstorm activity for about 75 miles (125 km), lasting about 12 minutes of flight time. Of course anything so far is speculation until more evidence comes in, and for all we know the cause of the downing could have been anything from turbulence to coincidental problems like a cargo fire.

My own opinion of the crash cause, as of Monday night, based on the complete lack of a HF radio call and consideration of all of the above, suggests severe turbulence (see the BOAC 911 and BNF 250 tragedies) combining in some unlikely way with CRM/design/maintenance/procedural/other deficiencies to trigger a failure cascade. We can almost certainly count on some unexpected surprises once the CVR is recovered. Until then, all we can do is await the investigation and hope that the world’s flight operations stay safe until AFR447’s lessons are revealed.

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