Air France Flight 447
- Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on its flight from Rio De Janeiro to Paris, carrying 212 passengers and 12 crew members.
- The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System indicated the autopilot disengaged, the Air Data Inertial Reference Unit had failed, and that the aircraft cabin depressurized.
- Investigators know for certain that Flight 447 was passing through an area of severe thunderstorm activity at the time of its disappearance.
- A malfunction in the craft’s airspeed indication system may have caused the pilot to fly through the storm at a rate above the maximum penetration airspeed, which could have contributed to the crash.
- Another contributing factor, which occurred in a recent incident involving another A330, may have been a malfunctioning Air Data Inertial Reference Unit causing the plane to enter into an unexpected dive.
Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after 2:00 a.m. U.T.C. on June 1, 2009. The flight departed Rio De Janeiro’s Galeão International Airport bound for Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, carrying 212 passengers and 12 crew members. The passengers were from many different countries, including Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and the United States.
The aircraft was an Airbus A330-200 and was first placed into service in April 2005. Wreckage debris has been found. This discovery is important because without the wreckage it may be difficult or impossible for the investigators to determine the cause of the accident. Even though the debris discovered drifted many miles away from the crash site, its discovery will allow investigators to narrow the focus of their search.
It will still be challenging for the investigators to find and then recover the black boxes because the ocean is miles deep in the crash area.
French aviation authorities have taken the lead in the investigation and are being assisted by experts from other countries, including the United States’ NTSB. Thus far, however, the investigation has yielded few clues as to the cause of the crash. The aircraft’s flight data recorder, known as the “black box,” has not been recovered, and some fear that it may never be found given the depth of the ocean in the region and the lack of information regarding the specific location of the crash site.
There are, however, some indications that Flight 447 may have experienced several system malfunctions shortly before the crash. The aircraft was equipped with an Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which is a digital data link system that transmits short messages regarding aircraft performance to ground operation stations via radio or satellite. Between 2:10 a.m. and 2:14 a.m. U.T.C., the plane’s ACARS system transmitted several messages. It reported, among other things, that the autopilot had disengaged, the Air Data Inertial Reference Unit had failed, and the aircraft cabin had depressurized. Nonetheless, standing alone, this information does not explain the cause of the crash.
The latest theory, based on additional information obtained by investigators, is that the aircraft’s airspeed indication system may have malfunctioned, providing the pilot and the onboard flight computer with incorrect data regarding the aircraft’s speed. If true, this would indeed be significant.
Investigators know for certain that Flight 447 was passing through an area of severe thunderstorm activity at the time of its disappearance. Almost anyone who has been a passenger on a plane knows that thunderstorms bring turbulence, and severe thunderstorms can generate severe turbulence. Such storms also bring high winds and frequently generate significant updrafts or downdrafts - pockets where the wind direction shifts to straight up or straight down, often at speeds above 50 miles per hour. Commercial airliners, such as the A330, are designed to withstand a great deal of turbulence, but pilots avoid such areas when they can, both for passenger comfort and because severe enough turbulence can damage an aircraft.
When a pilot has to penetrate an area of thunderstorms, however, one of the key factors he must consider is the speed of the aircraft. As a plane flies faster and faster, the amount of stress placed on the wings and tail increases. Thus, every aircraft has a maximum allowable airspeed that cannot be exceeded without damaging the plane’s structure. Turbulence also places stress on an aircraft’s wings and tail, and when combined with the stresses associated with the speed of flight, a plane can easily reach its structural stress limits at a speed well below its maximum airspeed. Therefore, aircraft designers usually provide pilots with a maximum airspeed for thunderstorm penetration. A plane flying through an area of significant turbulence above the maximum penetration speed can easily be damaged. If Flight 447 had a malfunction in its airspeed indication system that caused the pilot or the flight computer to fly through the area of severe weather at some speed above the plane’s maximum penetration airspeed, the combinations of stresses involved may well have caused or contributed to the crash.
Also of interest to investigators is an incident that occurred off the coast of Australia in October 2008 involving an A330 that reportedly had the same type of flight computer used on Flight 447. There, a malfunction in the aircraft’s Air Data Inertial Reference Unit caused the plane to enter into a sudden and unexpected dive. The pilots were able to regain control of the aircraft, but many passengers on board sustained serious injuries. If such an event happened to Flight 447 while it was passing through the area of severe thunderstorms, the structural integrity of the aircraft could easily have been severely damaged, and the pilots would have had a very difficult time regaining control of the plane.
With so little information available, most theories about the cause of the crash are quite speculative. Our firm will, however, continue monitoring the investigation and will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available.
Families of the victims of Flight 447 should not feel pressured into taking legal action. The victims’ families may be contacted by attorneys or individuals working for attorneys over the coming weeks. The families should know that federal law prohibits lawyers from making any uninvited contact with them for 45 days following the crash. Additionally, individual state ethics laws, which govern attorney conduct, may prohibit such solicitation of family members. It is important for victims to take their time and consult with attorneys who are experienced in the area of Aviation Accident Law.
If you have any questions or would like further information about the investigation of Flight 447 please feel free to contact any of the following partners.
More information on this case can be found in the Kreindler attorney article, “Aviation Law: Investigative and Legal Issues Relating to Air France Flight 447”, by Justin Green and Steve Pounian.