June 2, 2009
We’re still in that spooked stage following the disappearance of Air France flight 447 off the coast of Brazil in the early morning hours of June 1, UTC. What’s so spooky is that airplanes don’t just fall out of the sky. Why this one did is far from being solved. According to a recent Boeing study, only nine percent of fatal airline accidents occur while the airplane is in its cruise phase. This, despite the fact that an airliner spends 57 percent of its time in cruise even on a 90-minute hop, and much more on a transoceanic flight.
Today, as the first bits of debris—life vests, empty seats, and oil slicks—were sighted by Brazilian pilots along the flight path of the Airbus A330-200, speculation persisted that turbulence and lightning played a role in the crash. Though all modern jetliners are built with wide design margins to tolerate punishment from severe weather, some observers believe that turbulence triggered by huge thunderstorms in the area may have set off a domino effect that led to the loss of the airplane. What is known is that the final transmissions from the wide body at 2:14 UTC came from the A330′s automated systems, and indicated an electrical failure and a cabin depressurization.
“I think any accident is unique, but weather often factors in,” says Larry Cornman, a physicist who studies turbulence at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “Based on my best judgment, it would be hard to believe that turbulence by itself would have caused this. The key is a notion of a cascade of events, a random coincidence, hazardous meteorological conditions that played a part.”
Cornman warns that it may be a long time before we know anything for sure, as the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, often called “the black boxes,” are presumably sitting on the bottom of the Atlantic, as much as three miles down. But he says that for the next 30 days or so, the boxes will emit a beacon with a sonar component that might be heard by equipment at the surface.
“Air France is a serious airline,” says Cornman, “and they’ll be highly motivated to find out what happened.”
Next: In an age of instant global communication, how can an airliner go missing?