Air France disaster not caused by single factor, analysts say

June 23rd, 2009

AF 447 debris aboard Brazilian Navy corvette Cabloclo. Photo Brazilian Navy, Agencia Brasil

AF 447 debris aboard Brazilian Navy corvette Cabloclo. Photo: Brazilian Navy, Agencia Brasil

As the crew of a French Navy submarine races against the clock to recover flight data recorders from an Air France jet lost over the Atlantic Ocean last month, aviation analysts say while the ‘black boxes’ remain the best hope of uncovering what happened, people shouldn’t expect there to be a single cause, even if they are found.

The Airbus A330 bound for Paris left Rio de Janeiro’s Antonio Carlos Jobim airport at around 19:00 local time (23:00 GMT) on May 31, but then some three and half hours later lost radio contact.

On Tuesday, following a media report claiming weak signals from the black boxes have been detected, the French air incident investigation bureau (BEA) issued a brief statement.

“No signals transmitted by the flight recorders’ locator beacons have been validated up to now and work is undertaken on a regular basis that is aimed at eliminating any doubts related to any sounds that may be heard, and findings will be made public,” the statement said.

Though officials say it’s much too early to establish what lays behind the incident, speculation has centred on whether faulty speed sensors caused the plane to go down in stormy conditions.

Minutes before the plane went missing, it sent out around two dozen automated messages, providing contradictory information about the plane’s airspeed.

Bill Voss spent 23 years at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and was director of the Air Navigation Bureau at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

“The public tends to assume that everything can be broken down into one single fact and that’s only in the movies,” said Voss, who is now president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an aviation safety advocacy organisation.

If investigators are eventually able to shed light on what happened, answers are likely to involve interplay between the environment, the weather, which is no longer being talked about, as well as the interaction of the aircraft’s automation and the pilot, Voss added.

Black box maker Honeywell has said it is confident the devices will be found, though batteries only last around 30 days, leaving about a week to bring them to the surface.

Search for answers

Colorado-based aviation expert Micheal Boyd says while the black box is a crucial piece in the jigsaw,  significant amounts of debris, including the galley picked up so far may give investigators enough to piece together what happened.

“It’s usually a number of things coming together that have never come together before and may never come together again,” he said.

Since the incident, flight safety monitoring equipment makers have been promoting awareness of their products, with one telling this website that its satellite-based trends monitoring system probably would have prevented the disaster.

Air France says it is unable to comment on the matter under French law and is referring the media to the BEA, which so far has not responded to a request for information on that issue.

However, analysts such as Chris Yates, an industry consultant and aviation security editor at Jane’s Information Group in London disagree.

“I wouldn’t say there is nothing new about this,”he said. “But after twenty years in this business no one has the ultimate answer to the holy grail.”

Yates’s sentiments were echoed by Voss.

“I think that it’s unlikely that any trend monitoring system could have told us what we need to improve on  and that’s why I so hope we do get the black boxes because they will give us the information to really illuminate the whole story,” he said.

Twenty-three days into the recovery operation, though a body hasn’t been found in the past week, possible fresh sightings of debris are spurring the hunt for evidence.

“Unfortunately, the possibility [of finding new bodies] is reducing. All the same for the moment the search is going to continue”, Frigate Captain Tabosa Giucemar, a Brazilian Navy spokesperson said.

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