Friday, June 05, 2009

More Thoughts on AF447

This report may or may not mean anything:
Two pilots and a passenger who was in the galley of the plane “suddenly saw far away a strong and intense flash of white light” which plunged vertically downwards and disappeared in six seconds, the pilot wrote.

The pilot had also observed storms with electric activity and cloud formations near his route.
A bright white flash and 6 second plunge into the ocean suggests a catastrophic ending, which doesn't seem to jibe with published reports about 10-15 minutes of failure alerts beamed back to Air France HQ before it disappeared.

Assuming for a moment there was a small bomb detonated in a cargo hold, such a thing could account for a gradual loss of systems leading to eventual breakup and perhaps a final fuel vapor explosion. The problem with that is the witnesses--they reported a "bright white" flash, not a fireball.

During the TWA 800 crash it was noted there were two flashes, one bright white initial flash followed by a fuel-air fireball as the plane fell into the sea. The explanation of the first bright white flash was atomized fuel vapors in the near empty Center Wing Tank being ignited by a spark in a frayed wire inside the tank, which caused a structural breakup of the aircraft. The forward section plummeted immediately into the ocean while the remaining section continued upwards a few thousand feet before finally exploding and plunging into the sea downrange.

The debris field was crucial in making those judgments (even if some believe the theory of a climbing nose-less plane was not credible) so likewise, finding a debris field here would go a long way towards explaining the event.

It's possible the folks on the Spanish plane saw an intense flash of lightning obscured by clouds that made it appear circular and brilliant, then after learning of the crash it seemed more important in retrospect. Authorities should be able to track both aircraft on a map to see whether a sighting was even possible. The NTSB has long questioned the reliability of eyewitness accounts in plane crashes.

Even if a sighting was possible the ultimate discovery of the CVR and FDR would almost certainly explain whether the white flash theory holds any merit after studying detailed meteorological analysis alongside the flight path and data readouts. This is assuming they ever find the correct debris field or that one still exists. This gentleman put things into perspective rather nicely:
The French armed forces spokesman, Christophe Prazuck, said: "Everyone has doubts about everything at the moment and we do not have the slightest beginnings of an answer yet."
Plane crashes are perhaps the most traumatic events known to man and always garner wild speculation and headlines, which is why al Qaeda and other terrorists choose aviation as a vessel for their attacks. Sadly, we usually see the media at their factual worst in the days and weeks after crashes in the rush for answers, so it's prudent to be as patient as possible--which also applies to bloggers.

MORE 6/5/09

Speaking of their factual worst, the Brazilian military was adamant yesterday that search crews had found a key piece of the airplane:
"I can confirm that the five kilometers of debris are those of the Air France plane," Defense Minister Nelson Jobim told reporters at a hushed press conference in Rio. He said no bodies had been found and there was no sign of life.
Now today:
The confusion started when the Brazilian military said on its Web site Thursday that it had recovered an 8-foot long structural support piece, a pallet, used in the cargo area of airplanes. But by Thursday night, the military had retracted that and said that the pallet — wooden — did not, in fact, belong to Flight 447.
And away the media goes, leaving the impression that no debris from the plane was actually found when indeed:
Air Force Brig. Gen. Ramon Cardoso insisted Friday that at least some of the debris spotted from the air — an airplane seat, a slick of kerosene and other pieces — are from the plane that vanished Sunday with 228 people on board. The Brazilian air force also distributed images pinpointing where the material was found.
Here's a map of everything found so far. When the news hit this morning I was wondering where an airliner seat would have come from if not from an airliner, so this makes more sense.

MORE 6/7/09

The discovered bodies, although unbearably grisly and heartbreaking for the families, will be tremendously important to accident investigators in determining whether a bomb was onboard the aircraft based on the presence of any metal fragments.

While anything's still possible it certainly looks increasingly like 447 had an encounter with a thunderstorm that didn't go well. Most pilots avoid these monsters like the plague, especially the one seen around 2 1/2 degrees north latitude early Monday morning. An earlier post here was erroneous as to the flight path; here's a better map based on later evidence. The white box shows the last known position based on the ACARS data transmission of the crippled aircraft at 0214Z; this image was time-stamped for 0215Z or one minute later.

Enhanced satellites plot cloud temperature, with brighter colors being colder, ie, higher cloud tops. Domestic flights almost always steer clear of such things but protocol might be different in the tropics. At any rate, it seems prudent to ask if or why trans-oceanic flights wouldn't have access to onboard weather data to show satellite images over the open ocean where ground based weather and air traffic radar don't exist. Airborne radar is good but it can sometimes attenuate distant (and perhaps bigger) cells if blocked by rain closer to the airplane's antenna.

There's more to learn here, such as the nature of interaction between Air France meteorologists and dispatchers with the flight crew and how attentive the pilots were to the weather ahead, something the CVR may be able to clear up.

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