What Brought Down Air France Flight 447?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

Distraught relatives and friends of passengers of Air France Flight 447 arrive at the crisis center at Charles de Gaulle airport, near Paris, on June 1, 2009

Search efforts were under way on Monday following the disappearance of an Air France Airbus passenger jet bearing 216 passengers and 12 crew members en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. After leaving the range of Brazilian radar controllers, the plane encountered stormy weather over the Atlantic Ocean, French officials said, and then suffered an unknown failure possibly caused by a short circuit. Speaking to France Info radio, the French government minister supervising the search for the aircraft, Jean-Louis Borloo, said, "We must seriously imagine the most tragic scenario."

Air France Flight 447, a twin-engine A330, took off from Galeão International Airport in Rio de Janeiro at 7:30 p.m. local time and was last heard from three hours later, when the cockpit crew radioed to tell Brazilian air controllers that the plane would enter Senegalese airspace at 11:20 p.m., according to a statement from Aeronautica, the body in charge of Brazilian airspace. (No message from Senegalese airspace was ever received.) Speaking at a press conference, Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon said the plane encountered stormy weather and strong turbulence at 11 p.m. and shortly thereafter sent out an automatic message reporting a "loss of pressure and a failure of the electrical system." (See pictures of the Hudson River plane crash.)

"Clearly there has been a failure in the aircraft, and we can say without a doubt this is an air catastrophe," Gourgeon said, adding that he "shares in the mourning of passengers' relatives." On Monday afternoon, French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with families and friends of the missing passengers at Charles de Gaulle airport. "I told them the truth: that the chances of finding survivors are very small," he said. An Air France manager in Brazil said the passengers included 80 Brazilians, 73 French citizens, 18 Germans, nine Italians and six U.S. citizens as well as citizens of 17 other countries. (Read "Surviving Crashes: How Airlines Prepare for the Worst.")

Brazilian officials said the plane dropped off the radar between the islands of Fernando de Noronha and Ilha do Sal, one of the Cape Verde Islands. Five planes, two helicopters and three boats are involved in the initial search for it, and the French have sent up a military plane from Dakar, Senegal. Brazilian officials cautioned that the search area could be three times the size of Europe.

With no physical evidence and no witnesses, identifying the circumstances of Flight 477's disappearance will take time. For Julien Gourguechon, international secretary-general of the SNPL French pilots' union, the current hypothesis of an electrical-systems failure leads to more questions than answers. "If Air France mentioned they received a message of short circuit, we can conclude it was a rather serious one," he says. "But in the case of an A330, even the most serious type of short circuit — known as an emergency electrical configuration — is something absolutely manageable for a trained team. So at this time I cannot explain the exact reasons for this tragedy, if it is indeed confirmed as one."

Given the stormy weather off the Brazilian coast, Air France said the plane may have been struck by lightning, but that alone wouldn't necessarily lead to catastrophe, Gourguechon says. "Lightning strikes happen every day and usually have no consequences. The airplane was built to survive that."

David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flight International Magazine in London, agrees but says that in rare instances lightning can have serious consequences. "The primary effects of a lightning strike would not bring an airplane down — the airplane is designed to be able to absorb it and then to be able to get rid of the static electricity," he says. A lightning strike actually hitting an electrical circuit and causing a short circuit is "terribly rare," he says. "But the [term] short circuit was used. Short circuit equals sparks. Spark equals fire. We're speculating, but an airplane has gone missing." It's believed to be the first time a plane has gone down between South America and Europe (or vice versa) since the route was inaugurated in 1947. (See pictures from the Buffalo plane crash.)

A hidden fire onboard is among the ultimate nightmare scenarios for pilots, and the 1998 tragedy of Swissair Flight 111, which crashed off the coast of Canada after flammable material in the aircraft structure allowed a fire to spread unbeknownst to the crew, remains vivid in the minds of many aviation-safety experts. "[The Swissair flight] rattled a lot of cages in the industry," says Learmount. "A lot of things have changed since that time, but there's still one thing that hasn't changed, and that is, for all the sophistication of today's airplanes, if a fire starts onboard somewhere, behind panels, the only detectors you've got in a large part of the airplane are the cabin crews' noses. There are areas where they've got smoke detectors — in the lavatories and in the cargo holds — but if one starts in an electrical circuit behind the cabin wall next to you, sitting there by the window, you don't know about it, because there are no smoke detectors there." (Read about the deadly 1998 Swissair crash.)

The Airbus 330 is a top-of-the-line aircraft, says Learmount, and one of the safest in the world. "We're talking about the aviation equivalent of the modern, expensive, very sophisticated car," he says. "It just never goes wrong, and if it does, it self-diagnoses and sends messages back to base." But despite all these technological advances, progress can still be made in dealing with fire detection, he says. "[Since the Swissair flight] there were loads of people in the industry saying it is just not acceptable to have modern airplanes being churned out with the most amazing safety systems, and yet if a fire starts, it can actually progress quite a long way before anybody knows it's happening." (Read "How Flight 1549 Averted Tragedy.")

Unfortunately, as long as the plane or its black box are not recovered, it will be impossible to know what caused the disappearance of Air France Flight 447, says Gourguechon. "As frustrating as it is, we'll need more information before we can imagine any scenarios." But for Learmount, if a short-circuit fire is to blame, one thing is for sure. "We have to look here for the lessons we got from that [Swissair flight]," he says. "Airplanes should have heat and smoke detectors all over them ... so that if a fire started anywhere, you would know immediately." He adds, "That has not been implemented by any of the world's leading aviation authorities, not by the [U.K.'s] Civil Aviation Authority, the French DGAC or the American FAA."

With reporting by Andrew Downie / São Paulo and Adam Smith / London

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

See how to escape down an airplane slide.