Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Aviation Update

Another horrible loss re QZ8501.  Sympathies to the families--there's no reason they should have to see images of bodies floating in the ocean on TV networks and major web sites.

Thoughts so far...

1.  It appears the aircraft did not come straight down like another AF447 event.  Sonar reports show it about 60nm away from the last known radar position, which means the crew might have fought the plane and tried to make some kind of crippled ditching.  Reports that some victims were 'holding hands' at the end makes it appear the aircraft might have been intact until the end, ie, no explosive decompression or hull damage at altitude.  The geo-position of the bodies in proximity to the wreckage depends on the currents in that area.  After three days there is going to be some drift.  Autopsies would confirm whether anyone left the aircraft before it crashed.     

2.  It's not immediately known (haven't seen it reported at least) whether the captain or first officer was flying the plane.  Also, are there any suspicious names on the manifest?   The FBI in Washington probably ruled out terrorism last week, but to be honest, this looks more weather-related.  Leaving two hours before scheduled departure time is unheard of in the US, but maybe they knew the storms were coming and tried to beat them.  It would be interesting to know where and when the crew got their takeoff weather briefing.  There should be a dispatch release or something similar.  Such a thing is required in the United States. 

3.  If the initial leaked graphic of the radar track of the aircraft's last known position is accurate then the pilot busted his ATC clearance by climbing beyond his assigned FL320 altitude (it showed 36,300 feet).  They had asked for FL380 and a slight left turn, but according to reports ATC didn't get back with the clearance until after they had disappeared off radar.  This suggests something was going on that demanded they climb immediately, without clearance, unless they were in an updraft and couldn't help it.  Such might explain the very low ground speed.  Such also suggests a stall within an area of either ice crystals or supercooled water droplets, bringing icing into the picture, or extreme turbulence.     

4.  At any rate, the speculation will be over soon.  It shouldn't take long to find the black boxes, which should largely solve this mystery.  The families and the rest of the world should know some details fairly soon.   Now, if they can just find MH370.

Enhanced Infrared Satellite photograph with two black circles indicating departing and destination airports with black line the approximate flight track.  Red colors equate to colder temperatures, which translates to higher cloud 'tops' and stronger storms.  Weather is always changing--on this particular morning the storms along the route were building not decreasing.

MORE  1/1/15

Sigh.  It was hoped the information flow on this event would be better after the absolute nightmare of erroneous information and corrections with MH370.   Now, after CNN and other media outlets picked up a report about a sonar-identified location, the 'official' source of info claims no such thing occurred and the wreckage has not been located.   Without a partially intact fuselage resting on the bottom all of the above speculation is obviously suspect.

We do know a few things.  Bodies were found, reportedly only 6 miles from the last radar location.  According to this chart the current is fairly weak in the Java Sea.  This brings an explosive decompression or other structural failure situation back into play, if the bodies found to date were ejected from the aircraft before impact.  Had the aircraft come straight down in a dive the destruction would have been fairly complete and the remains in quite a different state than found so far.  This scenario also brings pilot suicide or terrorism into play.

That said, if the aircraft came straight down it should be in the general vicinity of the last radar hit (which is not being reported officially--primary radar would have recorded something beyond the last secondary hit).  If sonar is not picking it up that could mean there are no large pieces left due to the aircraft being in a nose-down attitude descending at a high rate of speed.  This was the case with the Air Algerie MD-83 that crashed in a thunderstorm in Mali this past summer.

Matter of fact the Mali crash could turn out to be quite similar since both aircraft were above FL300 in cruise when they tried to circumnavigate thunderstorm complexes.  However, according to the interim French BEA report the cockpit voice recorder on the Air Algerie plane had malfunctioned and was taping multiple layers of conversations over itself through several flights instead of erasing and recording as designed, leaving a jumble of conversations.  They do have the FDR, but without the cockpit conversations it will be harder to understand the crew's thinking or whether there were any unusual sounds before they went out of control.

One thing seems fairly certain.  If it's unclear what happened they will do everything possible to push the pilot error or weather-related probable causes as those are the safest findings for everyone involved and people tend to accept those explanations.  Considering terrorism, one of the reasons KSM and Yousef planned their "Operation Bojinka" with up to a dozen aircraft being blown up simultaneously was because they knew the authorities could not cover up the findings.  The same thing occurred on 9/11--after the first plane impacted the tower everyone was watching as the second one came in so there was no denying what had occurred.

Still, this feels more like a weather-related crash.  If so, and if the AF447 cause wasn't to blame, then it might go against the long-held reasoning that tropical thunderstorms contain weaker updrafts than mid-latitude varieties.  But maybe the science isn't completely settled yet.    

MORE  1/3/15

Looks like Air Asia was flying an illegal route.  Maybe that had something to do with them leaving 2 hours before scheduled flight time.  Meanwhile, experts are speculating that since the ELT did not activate it means the airplane did a Sully Sullenberg splashdown on the ocean.  OK, but how does that explain pieces of the aircraft they are now discovering, sheared from the fuselage?  That doesn't comport with a splashdown-sinking, it more comports with the aircraft plunging after an upset and surpassing its aerodynamic limits and breaking up before impact.

That might also explain why the ELT didn't activate--perhaps the antenna was broken off before impact.  And finding people, God rest their souls, still strapped in their seats on the surface doesn't line up with an intact splashdown and sinking.  It does line up with a breakup before impact and perhaps the main wreckage is closer to the position of the last radar indication than earlier thought.  The current in the Java Sea would float everything still on the surface east over time. 

Anyway, if weather turns out to be a causative factor here's hoping the aviation industry in Asia adopts the US model on weather avoidance, which has produced an incredible safety record over the past decade plus. 

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