What doomed Air France Flight 447?

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  June 2, 2009 at 11:10 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 2 (UPI) -- There is no need for any conspiracy theories about the tragic loss of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean Monday, apparently killing all 228 people on board.

No terrorist group has claimed "credit." The European-built Airbus 330-203 has an exceptionally impressive safety record. Not a single one has ever crashed while in service carrying passengers. The captain of the plane had an exceptionally long and blemish-free record, with more than 11,000 hours of flight time including more than 1,700 hours flying the Airbus. His primary crew members were equally seasoned and impressive.

The wreckage did not vanish without trace. Brazilian air force planes Tuesday reported sighting what appeared to be wreckage 600 miles north of their nation's coast. Thorough surveillance of the wreck of the aircraft, even if it could be detected, appears extremely unlikely if not impossible. It crashed in 24,000 feet of water.

Brazilian aviation officials said Tuesday they spotted floating objects, including seats, in the Atlantic Ocean that may be from the aircraft.

Brazilian air force spokesman Jorge Amaral said the items were found about 400 miles from the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha, the initial search area for Flight 447.

The airliner had been heading into massive turbulence rising to 41,000 feet. It would be simplistic to ascribe the crash to a lightning strike. Airliners are struck by lightning all the time -- they are carefully proofed against such strikes doing serious damage. But Flight 447 could have been hit by multiple lightning strikes overwhelming the operating system and setting off a cascading, multiple systems failure. The A-330 Airbus has not one but four electronic operating systems, any one of which is meant to safely fly the aircraft if the others are all disabled.

Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon has publicly revealed that "a succession of a dozen technical messages (documenting that in the crisis) several electrical systems had broken down" in the plane. He said this ultimately included the failure of the pressurization system within the aircraft. The data contained in those messages will provide crash investigators with their best clues for reconstructing Flight 447's last horrific minutes and discovering what went so fatally and irredeemably wrong.

Ironically, the tragic loss of Flight 447 brings home how safe civilian air travel around the world generally is. Millions of people a day fly hundreds of thousands of miles in total security and relative comfort, taking for granted the flawless functioning of a technology that was inconceivable for nearly all of human existence on this planet and that was developed from scratch in the past 106 years. Whatever went wrong with Flight 447, scores of dedicated air crash investigators from France, Brazil, Airbus and Air France will be poring over the wreckage and the records to learn exactly what went wrong and ensure that it never happens again.

In this sense, at least, the heartbroken relatives and friends of the 216 passengers and 12 crew members who perished on Flight 447 can take comfort that the deaths of their loved ones may save countless future lives and that their deaths were not in vain.

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