Tag Archives: Air France 447

Air France 447 Report: French Duck for Cover

I am posting this morning a lengthy comment I received from Manuel Garcia, Jr.,a retired engineering physicist, who wrote a most informative critique in Counterpunch.

His original article there—”The New Crisis in Aviation”—provides a detailed analysis of Flight 447, and is well worth reading. Garcia can be reached at: mango@idiom.com. Garcia writes:

I notice two things about the AF447 BEA investigation (http://www.bea-fr.org/anglaise/actualite/actu.htm) news stories today: 1) the plane held together till the bitter end, including the tail, and 2) Airbus planes are completely safe, keep flying folks:

[Quoting the Washington Post]
Despite the lingering mystery about what led to the plane’s sudden plunge, [Alain Bouillard, who is heading a probe by the French Investigation and Analysis Bureau] said he saw no reason at this point to ground the twin-engine Airbus A330 or for passengers not to board such aircraft with confidence. “As far as I am concerned, there is no problem flying these aircraft,” he told reporters.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/02/AR2009070201409.html?hpid=sec-world

So, the plane hits in one piece at one spot, and the tail is found six days later about 50 km south of most the rest of the debris field, which stretches about 150 km north, with the bodies pretty much along a line, and bits of wreckage flung out 50 km each way laterally from that track. China Airline 611, a 747, broke up at 35,000 in 2002 — a badly repaired rear pressure bulkhead gave way, explosive decompression — a breakup first into four pieces (estimated from radar) and ultimate scatter over 130 km; and AF447 pinpoints in one spot and has equivalent scatter? Maybe the ocean currents did spread out the AF447 debris that far; but some data on the currents and perhaps some computer models of the dispersal would sure make that argument more convincing to those of use not experts at marine drifts.

Regardless of any technical analysis (and the BEA people are closer to the data and specimens than I can ever be, and they have access to specialists, which I am not) it seems pretty obvious that if more Airbus planes had fallen out of the sky because their composite tails fell and/or broke off, then the world would be screaming to ground the entire fleet immediately. And Boeing’s increasing delayed Dreamliner would start looking like a Plumbob Zeppelin. So, AF447 has to hold together because it is holding ‘everything’ together. There was already a crisis in civil aviation before AF447 died, because of high fuel prices and the economic crash — ticket sales were down, airplane orders (at the Paris Air Show) were absent, and the buyer’s market has people demanding and getting bargain tickets. What government agency is going to sink it’s civil air transport sector over one or two little crashes?

There is big fear out there about the management of the public mind, and the fearful withdrawal of its pocketbook. Back in 1958 Queen Elizabeth II even went abroad on the new de Havilland Comet to instill confidence back into the British aero industry. But, that was after the Comets had been grounded for over three years while the problem was solved. The prospect of over twelve quarters of no cash flow is not a viable option today. Who says there is no human sacrifice in our society? Instead of war captives spread out on stone altars to have their hearts ripped out on state holidays, we send bundles of people off on low-odds sudden termination lotteries in jumbo plastic airplanes, or death-wad and toxin-laced junk food mass feedings and drug trials. Our capitalist society is a like casino where you’re forced to play a slot machine, and if the long odds come up against you then it blows up in your face. The concept is deemed OK (by those raking in the chips) because the odds of bad stuff are “low.” Russian Roulette with 8 million empty chambers in the barrel is OK, so just pay up and keep pulling the trigger.

I hope they find the recorders, because I have a belief they will clear the pilots (the presumption of good piloting is a purely emotional attitude on my part), and because I think it would be enormously helpful to aeronautical engineers to finally decipher the instrument failures and sequence of forces that occurred on AF447. The price for this lesson was unwillingly paid by 228 people. I fear that not finding the recorders will become politically convenient, and suspect that the blame game has now completely taken over: anyone with a perceived liability regarding AF447 is in Red Alert CYA mode, and many with a loss or perceived potential for gain are weaving court filings (some no doubt quite justified). The French and the Brazilians already had a finger-pointing tiff early in the search, about what was or wasn’t real AF447 wreckage, and what might or might not have happened as regards in-flight breakup. The BEA report of 2 July points to air traffic sluggishness in Brazil and more so in Senegal as delaying the start of search-and-rescue. In seems unlikely that starting the search planes six hours earlier would have made any difference; the wreckage of AF447 would have sunk in minutes, and since there seems to have been no fire, there would be no ocean-surface fuel-burning to see. Despite the news reports (officially leaks) of autopsy findings in Brazil, and the participation of French medical forensic observers, the BEA complains it has not received the official autopsy results from Brazil. Probably true, but why?, is it all PR jockeying for world news media, CYA, and finger-pointing?

The BEA’s conclusion about an intact impact may be correct, but I will find it more convincing when they present step-by-step reasoning that ties all known facts (or proves individual facts spurious) into a sequence that produces their conclusion. That, and making their data public so independent analysts can replicate their findings, would be a first payment of honorable compensation to the dead. The principal of the rest of that debt would be to re-engineer the air transport fleet to prevent the technical failures that occurred on AF447. To do that we have to know what they were.

Airbus Goes Down in Indian Ocean in “Strong Wind”

It is far too early to tell whether structural problems had anything to do with the Yemeni Airbus crash earlier today in the Indian Ocean, as it headed for landing in Moroni, capital of the former French colony of the Comoros Islands. One hundred fifty three people are presumed to have died. One child was initially reported to have survived the crash.

The BBC reports on problems in the past with the Yemenia plane that crashed today:

The Yemenia Airbus 310 flight IY626 was flying from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, but many passengers on the plane began their journey in France. The EU voiced concern about Yemenia’s safety and proposed a world blacklist of those carriers deemed unsafe. The EU already has its own list, and its Transport Commissioner, Antonio Tajani, said such a list would be a “safety guarantee for all”.

Another EU official told Reuters news agency there were concerns about the airline’s “incomplete reporting procedure and incomplete follow-up” following 2007 tests on the aircraft which crashed, but that its record was improving.

But relatives gathered at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport and at Marseille Marignane airport to wait for news expressed anger about the state of the aircraft used by Yemenia, which is is 51% owned by the Yemeni government and 49% by the Saudi government. “They put us aboard wrecks, they put us aboard coffins. That’s where they put us. It’s slaughter. It’s slaughter,” one relative in Paris told French TV. The AP reports:

Stephane Salord, the Comoros’ honorary consul in Marseille, called Yemenia’s aircraft “flying cattle trucks.” “This A310 is a plane that has posed problems for a long time, it is absolutely inadmissible that this airline Yemenia played with the lives of its passengers this way,” he said.

“Some people stand the whole way to Moroni,” said Mohamed Ali, a Comoran who went to Yemenia’s headquarters in Paris to try to get more information.

Thoue Djoumbe, a 28-year-old woman who lives in the French town of Fontainebleau, said she and others had complained about the airline for years. “It’s a lottery when you travel to Comoros,” said Djoumbe. “We’ve organized boycotts, we’ve told the Comoran community not to fly on Yemenia airways because they make a lot of money off of us and meanwhile the conditions on the planes are disastrous.”

By mid morning, Yemeni officials were blaming the weather. It has been said the first attempted landing was aborted, and the crash appears to have happened during a second attempt. The wind speed recorded on land at the airport was under 40 miles an hour, but Agence France Presse quoted a Yemeni official saying that winds were gusting up to 70 mph over rough seas. This is turbulent weather, but still ought to be something a widebody commercial jet can handle.

Turbulence has also been cited as a contributing factor in earlier Airbus crashes. Air France 447 crashed amidst thunder storms. Another Airbus crashed after take off in New York in 2001. Safety officials said that was due to co-pilot misusing the rudder as the plane was being buffetted about in the wake of another aircraft.

As I’ve written about in the recent past, questions have been raised about the structural design of the Airbus 300-series planes–in particular, points where the tail is attached to the main plane. Under pressure, some say, the tail can snap off possibly because the bolts that hold it to the plane are made of composite materials, as are other parts of the plane. But at this point, with no detailed analysis yet made public, by either the company or French investigators who have been dispatched to the scene, such suspicions remain unsubstantiated.

Bloomberg News reports that French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau cited past “faults” found in inspections of the crashed A310, which led Yemenia to be placed “under strict surveillance.” But he was quick to rule out connections to other accidents on Airbus planes, which are produced in France.

The French minister ruled out any link between the crashes of Yemenia’s A310 and Air France’s A330. “It would be as if there were two accidents with Clios and we withdrew all Clios from the road,” Bussereau said in remarks televised from Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris, referring to the model from carmaker Renault SA.

Am I “On Crack” When It Comes to Flight 447?

PUB_GT_Aircraft_Composite_Content_1980-2010_lgThat’s what one of my readers wants to know. He made this comment in response to my coverage of the Air France 447 disaster, which questions whether the growing use of composite  materials in aircraft construction might have played a role in this and other recent crashes. I think it’s a pretty important subject of inquiry, since more and more of these fiber and resin materials are used in commercial airplanes every year. And apparently a lot of people are as riveted by this subject as I am, since there’s plenty of discussion on the web, and even a larger than usual number of comments on my own posts.

My original long post on this subject inspired one comment from someone who lost a relative on American Airlines Flight 587, also in the Airbus 300 series, which crashed in New York City in 2001 after its composite-made vertical stabilizer detatched in flight–something that might or might not have happened on AF 447. He wonders whether there have been “instances where a metal vertical stabilizer has broken off the fuselage, in-flight, on large conventional passenger jets.” I don’t know the answer to his question, but I’ve sent it to people more knowledgable than myself, and hope to have a response I can pass on soon.

The rest of the comments on this post (including one from an aircraft engineer and one from an Airbus 330 captain and instructor) accuse me of being irresponsible and inflammatory. One says that I might as well have asked whether aliens shot down AF 447.  Another inquired, “Are you on crack?” and then went on to say that “implying that composite parts caused the vertical stabilizer to detach from AF447, and thus doomed the flight, is premature at best, and irresponsible as a whole.”   

I encourage everyone to read all of these critical comments, which are written by knowledgable people and contain valuable information. As someone who has a ticket on an Air France Airbus A340 next month, I sincerely hope they’re right in saying that the composite parts are safe. I agree that it is “premature” to conclude that these parts played a role in the AF 447 and/or AA 587 flights. I also believe it is premature to conclude that they didn’t play any role. And I’d feel a lot better if we knew for sure, before sending any more jetloads of people out over the Atlantic Ocean in these planes.

My posts on this subject are intended to raise questions, not answer them. So far, all anyone has is questions. Even though some 400 pieces of wreckage have now been recovered, French investigators today stated:  “We don’t have new specific information that allows us to say this is what happened.” This means that we can’t rule out the possibility that composite parts were a contributory factor, just as we can’t rule out a number of other possible causes.

What concerns me most is what seem to me well-substantiated claims that the composite parts may not have undergone sufficient testing before new aircraft models began flying, and that they now lack effective routine ground testing between flights. These issues were raised by such reliable sources as the New Scientist, which recently published an update on the subject. If nothing else, the AF 447 crash suggests that we ought to take a serious look at the efficacy of testing protocols for composite aircraft construction, especially before the new generation of high-composite planes starts flying.

I’ve also gotten some comments from friends who wonder why I’m writing so much about airplane safety on a blog that’s supposed to be about the politics of aging, from the point of view of an old person. The only age-related reason I can give is that I grew up in an era before there was such a thing as a consumer safety movement, and that I happen to have been a witness (and perhaps even a minor participant) in the birth of this movement. 

ccb6eb6709a0fb1280861110_L__AA240_Back in the mid-1960s,  I began reporting on a car called the Chevy Corvair. At the time, the safety problems in that vehicle were being brought to life by an obscure young consumer activist named Ralph Nader. I was widely attacked as an irresponsible alarmist, while the auto industry responded with a blizzard of experts and even put a detective on Nader to try and get something on his personal life to smear him. But Nader perservered, and the questions he raised were taken up first by the late New York Senator Pat Moynihan and later by Bobby Kennedy. This eventually led to the institution of the first auto safety standards.

My response to the experts charging journalists like myself with ignorance and sensationalism is: Answer our questions and respond to the general public, which you serve. The aircraft industry and the airlines would be nowhere without the subsidies we taxpayers fork out through the federal government, and the tickets we buy on these planes. We have every right to ask questions of any conceivable sort, and to expect clear, evidence-based answers. There are always, in such cases, conspiracy theorists who won’t be satisfied by any amount of evidence. I’m not one of them, and neither, I believe, are many of the others who are asking similar questions–and getting a similar mix of (approving and attacking) comments in response.

I would also argue that we also have every reason to be skeptical, knowing how much money the aircraft manufacturers have sunk into the future of composite parts–and also knowing the airlines’ history of putting profits before public safety, and the FAA’s weaknesses in holding them accountable. This was one of the grim lessons people should have learned from 9/11, if they hadn’t learned it already.

It isn’t the public’s job–or mine–to prove that airplanes (or cars, or food additives, or prescription drugs, or any other product upon which our health and safety depend) are not safe. It’s the job of the corporations that make these products to prove to us that they are safe. Right now, I have my doubts about the safety of certain aircraft. I’m waiting–and hoping–to be proved wrong.

Making Money: Another Factor in the Air France 447 Disaster?

Cost-cutting could be yet another factor in the Air France 447 crash. I have described and quoted from various articles and blogs where pilots, meteorologists and other experts are trying to figure out what might have happened. From my point of view the most helpful has been the initial detailed meterological report by Tim Vasquez of Weather Graphics  and the subsequent discussion boards he has set up. On one of them devoted to opinions of pilots and experts, I found this entry, from “Kye,’’ which is certainly worth thinking about:

We do now know, from some the reports of the floating wreckage, that the plane appears to have been laterally fractured, rather than broken into pieces from the impact of the ocean.  What this evidence strongly suggest is, the plane appears to have broken apart in mid air, perhaps by the extreme pounding it took from the storm, which may have caused its wings and vertical stablizer to be shear off, or the plane’s body to be split from the opposing torque placed on both wings.  If the plane was turning to get out of the storm, particularly while fighting a strong updraft, I can imagine that it would have put undue stress on the dipped wing and vertical stabilizer, and ripped them off.  Even if the pitot was causing the plane to either underspeed or overspeed, the plane still had no business trying to fly through the most intense part of the storm.  What is more, the pilots should have been able to see what they were flying into from their radar returns.  The basic question remains:  Why did the pilots choose to fly directly into the storm?

It should be mentioned that the Air bus 330 has a service ceiling of slightly less than 39,500 feet, so it could not fly above storms that towered upwards from 51,000 to 56,000 feet.  Also, this plane has never been tested for G-force loading stresses.  G-force loading stress specifications for the Airbus 330 is listed as “unknown”. ..  

Along with the fact, as some have already mentioned, many airline companies do not let their flight crews to deviate off track by more than 10 nautical miles to avoid storms, (unless it is a declared emergency by the captain), as well as Air France’s “deferred maintenance” on replacing the pitot’s, would strongly suggest that Air France is basically at fault for cutting corners that affect safety to stay profitable.  Afterall, airlines have a notorious reputation for wanting to save on expenses and maximize profits, by preferring that their pilots maintain a course that will save on fuel and meet schedules, neverminding the weather conditions or equipment they are given to fly with, if the government regulators are not around requiring them to do otherwise.  Bottomline is:  Not only was Air France flight 447 on autopilot when it approached the storm, but the brains of pilots and Air France corporate headquarters were on autopilot too.   The pre-determined decisions made that lead up to this tragedy could have been avoided!!!

If any of this is true, it’s pretty horrible.

Did Composite Parts Bring Down Air France 447? (And Will the New FAA Do Its Job?)

 In the two weeks since the Air France 447 crash, I’ve written several times about the possibility that composite parts may have played a role in the disaster. This prospect has dire implications for the future, since these lightweight, fiber and resin materials are increasingly replacing aluminum in aircraft construction. AF 447 was an Airbus A330-200, a plane a body fuselage built of metal, but significant levels of  composite in its other parts–most importantly, the wings and the tail. 

Now, wreckage recoved from the crash shows that 447 may have broken up in midair–which raises new questions and offering new clues on this subject of composites, according to a piece today in the Christian Science Monitor.

“There is a very compelling need to find the wreckage,” says Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation safety consultant. “We need to know, if some of the composite parts failed [on Flight 447, whether they failed at a point that any other material would have failed.”

Some of the biggest pieces of debris found so far appear to be the plane’s tail fin and vertical stabilizer. These parts are made partially of composite materials, and their failure has contributed to several crashes in the past. In the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus 300 with a similar design to the A330, the vertical stabilizer snapped off in severe turbulence. One of the first questions investigators addressed was whether the composite materials used in the component contributed to the crash, according to Mr. Healing.

“The tail that broke off was a composite structure and was attached to the aircraft in six places. The bolts [some made of composite materials] holding it into place failed,” he says.

In fact, I’ve quoted other sources who say the turbulence encountered by American Airlines 587 before it crashed was mild compared with what Air France 447 might have met over the equatorial Atlantic. And while the bolts in question had passed safety tests, as have various composite parts, numerous questions have been raised about the methods used in testing new composite parts during the design process, as well as during routine ground testing prior to flights.

Boeing has hung a good part of its future on its new 787 Dreamliner, a midsized passenger jet built from over 50 percent composite materials, by weight. The Dreamliner is about to begin flight testing, and is supposed to be released next year. The lightweight construction of the 787 and other high-composite aircraft promises big savings to airlines in fuel costs. But with even a possibility that composites contributed to the 587 and 447 disasters, more testing and strict federal oversight, at the least, are needed before this new generation of aircraft begins flying.

Is this due diligence likely to happen? Remember that the fortunes of America’s largest aerospace manufacturer are in the mix, and that Boeing has given the 787 a huge buildup: The Dreamliner was supposed to be the highlight of the Paris Air Show, which opens up next week under the twin clouds of global recession and the 447 crash, but Boeing now says its first flight will be delayed. In fact, the plane is well behind schedule, placing Boeing is in competition with Airbus, which is working on its own high-composite jet.

It will be up to the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that public safety comes before private profits–not something the FAA has been known for. The last FAA administrator, Marion Blakely, was a fervent freemarketeer who opposed increasing government regulation. She went on to become chief lobbyist for the aerospace industry group. Obama’s appointee, Randy Babbitt, is the former head of the airline pilot’s union, and ought to have some interest in ensuring that planes don’t fall apart in midair.

More Structural Issues in the 447 Crash

In response to the loss of Air France 447, a French pilots’ union today asked its pilots not to fly the Airbus 330–the design of the crashed plane. Much has been made of the possible pitout tube failure on Air France 447. These tubes are sensors on the wings which might be prone to freezing up and distorting air speed, which in turn might mean the pilots were flying at too slow or too fast a speed to get through the thunder storms in the region.

There is a different theory having to do with the plane’s possible structural flaws, which brings us back to the question of composite aircraft materials, which I wrote about last week. Parts of the tail, recovered Monday, appear intact; the tail looks like it was ripped off the plane at the points of attachment. You can get some idea of what it looks like from this France 24 video.

To some observers, this bears a striking resemblance to the loss of the tail in the devastating American Airlines 587 crash in New York in November 2001. That plane was an Airbus 300. In an interesting comment on the Whatsupwiththat blog, a reader, Adoucette, writes:

The disturbing thing to me is that the A330 design is derived from the A300. Both have composite tails. In the AA-587 crash in Nov of 2001, the NTSB blamed the failure of the A300’s composite tail on the co-pilot. The NTSB claimed that the pilot made dramatic rudder inputs to counter wake turbulence from a 747 which had departed Kennedy two minutes earlier….
The NTSB said that the pilot, to combat mild turbulence, over controlled the aircraft by swinging the rudder fully to one side and then all the way to the other side, and it was this over-control which exceeded the tail’s design limits….

Now if this is possible from rudder inputs in mild turbulence in clear air at relatively low airspeed over NY, consider what could happen at high speed in major turbulence over the ITCZ [Intertropical Convergence Zone, a storm-prone area where trade winds converge].

Also making its way around the web is a report from NASA’s Langley Research Center on the possible effects of lightening on composite aircraft:

Traditional aircraft act as Faraday cages when struck by lightning, which means that the charge stays on the exterior of the aircraft.  However, as more aircraft are built using composite materials, we will need to understand the direct and indirect effects of lightning on those aircraft.  The researchers at LaRC are studying the  hazards of lightning on composite aircraft.  Some of the issues include the fact that magnetic flux can penetrate avionics wiring, and that lightning damage is often more severe than tests would predict (see this presentation for the full discussion).  Magnetic flux can penetrate composite aircraft more easily than metallic aircraft, inducing voltage and current on avionics wiring.

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.