Missing Air France A330

Air France has just admitted that it cannot hold out hope any longer of re-establishing contact with flight AF447. By now, the company says, this Airbus A330-200 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris would have run out of fuel if it were still airborne.

At present, information is very sparse. According to the airline, the last report from the aircraft provided evidence of an electrical short circuit that occurred shortly after encountering turbulence, and possibly a lightning strike. Aircraft are designed to be able to survive lightning strikes. They have to be, because they occur often, usually causing minor damage but, very rarely, serious damage to electrical or control systems.

Modern aircraft are so reliable and have so many backups for every system that a single electrical fault, or even the loss of an entire circuit, would be easily dealt with if that were all that had occurred. If the fault has been correctly interpreted as a short-circuit, that raises the spectre of an electrically-caused fire, and fire is always serious in an aircraft. But at this point there is no access to evidence of that type.

An event like this is the kind the aviation world hoped it would not see again, because it involves a world class carrier flying the latest generation of airliner, and it occurred en route, not during take-off or landing in difficult weather. It’s a chilling reminder that nothing is impossible, however unthinkable.

For anyone who doubts that a certain type of electrical fault could start a fire that could bring an aeroplane down, whether the fault was initiated by a lightning strike or something else (this example was something else), look at the Canadian Transportation Safety Board’s report on the Swissair 111 Boeing MD-11 accident at Peggy’s Cove, Halifax on 2 September 1998.

33 Responses to Missing Air France A330

  1. colin 1 June, 2009 at 4:07 pm #

    the media are reporting an automatic signal having been sent to indicate a short circuit.How is this sent and to whom?

  2. David Learmount 1 June, 2009 at 4:24 pm #

    The data is gathered automatically by the aircraft’s diagnostic sensors and is transmitted by datalink to the airline’s main operations and engineering base.

  3. NBeale 1 June, 2009 at 4:43 pm #

    An MD11 is one thing, an A330 is quite another. Could it really be brought down by a lightning strike? How??

  4. Jaco 1 June, 2009 at 5:34 pm #

    A System onboard, called ACARS do fault reporting to the Technical Centres of the operator. It is a two communication (data only) system that send automatic generated reprts. It can also interogate the aircraft from the ground, in most instances, with the flightcrew’s consent.

  5. Marcel 1 June, 2009 at 6:18 pm #

    I have no technical knowloedge in avionics what so ever. What would happen with an FBW jet in a eletrical shortage? Would it still be possible to fly it at all?

  6. Noel 1 June, 2009 at 7:01 pm #

    I understand all current Airbus aircraft are fly-by-wire. Is there any mechanical backup in the event of electrical failure?

  7. Bill Vidal 1 June, 2009 at 8:32 pm #

    Hey guys, I’ve flown that route dozens of times.
    There’s always at least one plane in front and one behind.
    What do the other crews say about the weather?

  8. Chris 2 June, 2009 at 3:38 am #

    An A330 has a mechanical linkage from the cockpit via rudder pedals for lateral control and horizontal stabilizer trim wheel for vertical control. No electrics hydraulics or computers are required to fly the airplane using these controls. An A330 is little bit more finicky to fly using that technique than the A340 but a moderately skilled type rated pilot can safely land the plane.

    Looking at the information so far. An explosion/fuselage brake up would initially and most likely register an electrical fault and especially short circuit as part of the fuselage being ripped up. Immediately following by decompression. These bits of information could have been relayed to the ground because computers operate in milliseconds giving them plenty of time to send this

  9. jbzoom 2 June, 2009 at 4:07 am #

    One aspect that the eventual investigation should look at is the apparently cavalier attitude to weather of some AF pilots. The 2005 Toronto A340 destruction followed a decision to land in a storm when captains of other airlines with the same weather data chose to divert. The 2001 Cayenne A340 runway undershoot was caused by pilot over-reliance on automated systems unable to handle wind-shear in a tropical storm. Weather data this time showed a tropical storm of Bermuda triangle proportions. Why did the captain choose to try and fly through it?

  10. David Nicholas 2 June, 2009 at 9:36 am #

    A lightning strike could have disabled the weather radar. Without this, in conditions of darkness – even with a half moon – the possibility of flying into the upper part of a Cb cloud exists. A loss of control (upset) could then follow, especially if additional lightning strikes were knocking out successive aircraft systems. Once control is lost in such conditions the aircraft is likely to quickly exceed its structural limits and break up….all this in the space of seconds.
    Was there a Sigmet issued concerning forecast weather for this part of the route? Had the crew been briefed of the likelihood of storms over and above the regular nature of such events around the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone? Were there any pilot reports from other aircraft? There is an established procedure in oceanic airspace for departing from cleared route for weather avoidance so it would not have been necessary to obtain an ATC clearance if the crew felt that there was potential risk to the aircraft. It is likely at this stage that one of the crew (likely the captain) was in the crew rest bunk, leaving the two co-pilots in charge.
    Little is known other than the ACARS system sent a sequence of technical messages, almost certainly after the initial problem and continuing until the aircraft broke up. If the pilots had been distracted by troubleshooting and unwittingly allowed the aircraft to continue into the tops of a storm cloud then that might account for the tragic outcome.

  11. Mark Clayton 2 June, 2009 at 12:47 pm #

    At the time of disappearance the A330 was in cruise in the middle of a flight. To a first approximation, even if the electicals had all failed it should have carried on at roughly the same speed in roughly the same direction and left plenty of time for the crew to make contact on one of the communication systems available to them.

    In theory the system may have malfunctioned and done something like activate the reverse thrusters (cf OE LAV 004 26/5/1991), but the reported power failure is not evidence of that

  12. Tapio Pohjalainen 2 June, 2009 at 3:41 pm #

    I just wonder why any of those automatic satellaite beacons (ELT) are not on. Even if the plane disintegrates in mid air, there are many systems. The ELT system is working at 406 MHz in adition to former 121,5 MHz freguency for better accuracy and reliability. Also they are required to be active at least 48 hours from activation. In the aircraft this has to be automatic system. Then of cource if the system is not boyant this could give answer to my question.

    It maybe that the beacons are not armed and active in the life drafts before some manual activation so it would be correct to assume that those are not active if there are no one to operate them.

  13. Wall 2 June, 2009 at 5:04 pm #

    All this talk of lightning and stuff doesn’t so it for me – surely no comms etc is much more likely to have been caused by an explosion. Caused by what, though?

  14. Johann 2 June, 2009 at 11:49 pm #

    “One aspect that the eventual investigation should look at is the apparently cavalier attitude to weather of some AF pilots…Why did the captain choose to try and fly through it?”

    As a pilot myself, I find it inconceivable that a pilot would deliberately fly into convective activity sufficiently severe to have threaten the structural integrity of the aircraft. This goes against the most basic training we receive. I don’t see company culture overcoming this innate weather-wariness no matter what. If there is any “cavalier attitude” to be investigated, it will not be in the area of aeronautical decision making, but in the area of automation. In this generation of aircraft, particularly in cruise, I find it entirely conceivable that circumstances could overtake both the pilot’s situational awareness, and the automation’s ability to deal with things.

  15. EVO747 3 June, 2009 at 12:20 am #

    I’m surprised no-one has yet proffered the possibility of this being another incident similar to the Qantas QF72 A330 incident last year when, uncommanded, the aircraft entered a rapid climb followed by a severe descent that caused considerable damage inside the aircraft and injured many of the passengers. There have been other similar but less severe incidents involving A330.

    If such an event coincided with severe turbulence it might be sufficient to incapacitate crew whilst the aircraft entered an uncontrollable spin or dive or completely destroyed the integrity of the airframe resulting in catastrophic failure.


    Have you been affected by the disappearance of the Air France flight? Do you have a story to tell about a flight that went wrong? Would you now think twice about flying? If you have something to say on our LIVE ON AIR DEBATE TONIGHT AT 6pm BST (5pm GMT), to be broadcast to the world, please send an email with your international phone number to josieleblond@hotmail.com and I will get back to you asap.

  17. EVO747 3 June, 2009 at 11:42 pm #

    Reports and rumours are now coming out that the flurry of automatically generated ACARS messages just before loss of contact are consistent (but more severe) with the type of ADIRU, uncommanded control event experienced on A330 previously (see above and refer to Qantas Learmouth event). One message alleged to refer to excessive vertical speed.

  18. jbzoom 4 June, 2009 at 7:20 am #

    I appreciate Johann’s point that pilots trained like him are inately weather-wary and that automation may play a role.

    In 1996 a cavalier attitude to tropical storms by the AF management put a 747 without weather radar on a track that resulted in one passenger fatality and eight seriously injured. In the 2001 incident the crew were placing “excessive reliance on automated systems” when they landed their A340 short of the runway at Cayenne in another tropical storm. And the AF team that totalled their A340 at Toronto in a storm, sailing off the end of the runway into a ravine also had systems issues. Though differently trained pilots from other airlines chose to divert.

    There is a high possibility that the investigation might have some harsh things to say about how AF trains and manages for weather, if the black boxes support this analysis.

    The only things that would get AF off the hook would put Airbus in the soup. If the black boxes identify a Qantas-style systems failure in a tropical storm or a major structural failure this would not help the marketing. (Even though the Airbus fleet overall is spectacularly safe).

    The final problem is that the aircraft in question F-GZCP had previously been involved in a ground collision with an A321 in which it officially suffered minor damage. Which could suggest a problem with the damage assessment or the repair that left the structure weakened. Not good for AF and/or Airbus again.

    No wonder the French government is preparing us for not finding the black boxes…

  19. JimC 4 June, 2009 at 12:38 pm #

    It amazes me how comprehensively folk are prepared to speculate on so very little information… For all we know they took a metorite strike through the cockpit. Mathematically pretty much impossible, but not much more far fetched than some of this speculation…

  20. Jorge 4 June, 2009 at 9:59 pm #

    This accident remember the one ocurred to a DC-9 fly over Fray Bentos, Uruguay, in 1997, when a plain, from Posadas to Buenos Aires, flied into a severe storm loosing the control of the DC-9 and entering in a free fall like the “cabin vertical speed” problem of Air France flight, with a velocity of 800 km/h and leaving a big crater on ground. This morning, the satellital maps from US.NOGAPS showed severe winds, over 120 km/h in front of Senegal, and big convective cluods near the north of Fernando de Noronha island. ┬┐Why the flights -like this- have no possibilities to change the flight course avoiding severe weather conditions?

  21. Jorge 5 June, 2009 at 12:46 am #

    This accident remember the one ocurred to a DC-9 fly over Fray Bentos, Uruguay, in 1997, when a plane, from Posadas to Buenos Aires, flew into a severe storm losing the control of the DC-9 and entering a free fall like the “cabin vertical speed” problem of Air France flight, with a velocity of 800 km/h and leaving a big crater in the ground. This morning, the satelliel maps from US.NOGAPS showed severe winds, over 120 km/h in front of Senegal, and big convective cluods near the north of Fernando de Noronha island. Why do flights -like this- have no possibilities to change course avoiding severe weather conditions?

  22. Jorge 5 June, 2009 at 10:16 pm #

    This is the report of the flight 2553(Austral Lineas Aereas) crash in Fray Bentos: “Flight 2553 took off from Posadas at 20:20 for an domestic flight to Buenos Aires-Aeroparque. The aircraft encountered bad weather en route with Cumulonimbus clouds (reportedly topping at 15,000m) an outside air temperature of -59deg. C and windshear conditions with winds at 80km/h.
    The flight was descending through FL300 the copilot extended the slats. This was done at an airspeed higher than permitted. This exceeded the design limit, causing an asymmetry. The pilots lost control of the plane which than entered an uncontrolled descent, crashing in a swampland on the banks of the Uruguay River. The wreckage was found at 04:40 the next morning in a 25 feet deep, 80 feet wide crater.
    Anomalous airspeed indications preceded the slat extension (a sudden increase from 200 knots to 450 knots IAS in 4 seconds), possibly due to icing of the pitot tubes.”
    From: Aviation Safety Network (http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19971010-0)

    Some similarity with AirFrance 447?

  23. Jorge 5 June, 2009 at 11:10 pm #

    In may 11, 1996, a DC-9 Value Jet crashed in Everglades at 800 km/h near a vertical descendant. Practically all the aircraft plunged in a deep-water swamp. The video images obtained shortly after the crash was astonishing: nothing in the surface of water! (http://www.efootage.com/play_clip.php?clip_id=13231) I remember the TV images of that day because I just arrived to Miami from Argentina in the same morning.
    Now with the AF-447: Is not possible to have the whole aircraft submerged under the sea because plunged downward at very fast velocity (with the nose in front) like a cormoran when fishing in the sea? If that is possible, there will be no signals on sea surface and nothing will be floating because everything is trapped into the fuselage. Therefore, the radius of the searching area must be extended.

  24. alvaro 9 June, 2009 at 11:26 am #

    You need the computers to properly fly an A330, the mechanical backup is intended to keep the flight more or less straight while computers are recovered (you have just rudder and elevator trim). Regular full-manual mode requires computers too. It’s probably close to impossible to fly with the mechanical backup in a high turbulence area or land the plane.

  25. David Learmount 9 June, 2009 at 12:07 pm #

    When talking about the fly-by-wire Airbuses and what they can and cannot do when there are problems, it’s illuminating to remember the safe outcomes of two incidents that left the aircraft without any engine power, and therefore without engine-generated electrics or hydraulics: the recent A320 Hudson River ditching, and the August 2001 Air Transat A330 landing at Lajes in the Azores with no fuel, having glided more than 100nm.
    Also useful to remember is that the aircraft had to perform landings successfully with the mechanical backup system to win certification for the backup system. You have to be very organised, and set up a stabilised approach early, but having done that it’s not rocket science.

  26. Leighton Mosese 10 June, 2009 at 5:44 am #

    hi, sorry is this may seem abit anti-media, but im amazed at the ammount of information that is being reported by large media outlets, about the pitot tubes. refering to them as “speed monitors” as a pilot in training myself currently doing my MEIR in new zealand, i hope that the media would properly understand the operation pitot tubes that they provide “speed information” based on the pressure differences and errors associated with the them i.e density and postion errors. to better let their viewers and readers understand their operation, another point is there is no mention of pitot heats which is a must in the IFR enviroment, all this talk about freezing and icing up of the pitot but forgetting that pitiot tubes also have a heating feature to reduce but inevtiably elimiate the icing problems depending on condition.

    As for the investigation itself my view is that any number of things can have gone wrong but until the FDR is recovered by we may then paint a picture with factual evendence of the plane’s attitude, speed and state of systems onboard before rulling out weather, systems failtures etc….comming to a conclusion this early without any sound evidence is an accident investigators biggest delima. but paradoxially a the media field day.


  27. David Nicholas 10 June, 2009 at 10:49 am #

    Seeing the detached (but otherwise intact) fin floating on the surface brought to mind the American Airlines A300 accident during climb-out from JFK when wake turbulence (if I recall correctly) caused the autopilot to disconnect. One of the pilots applied excessive rudder (at a relatively low airspeed) and the fin came off. I am not suggesting any structural weakness in the case of the Air France A330 but have a possible scenario in my mind of the aircraft encountering turbulence, perhaps with the captain out of the cockpit on his rest break, and the two co-pilots being faced with a turbulence-induced autopilot disconnect, loss of control (upset), and then a “recovery from unusual attitude” situation which – at night and in IMC – they were unable to correct before physics did the rest (perhaps assisted by a degree of overcontrolling, if the normal flight envelope protection system was no longer operative).

  28. Paul Miller 12 June, 2009 at 10:08 pm #

    Safety Riddle: Does the mishap cause the hazard to occur or does the hazard cause the mishap to occur?
    According to the FAA, Congress and airline transport associations safety experts, every thing is fine, until every thing is not fine.

    My question is this. Didn’t the safety hazard issues exist before the crash occurred? Why are safety experts looking at these issues after the crash occurred? Why didn’t they look at them before the crash occurred?
    Do they believe that the crash caused the hazards to occur? Is that why they are looking at them now?

    For example: Did Airbus do any certification testing of the AB330 in thunderstorms? If so, where is the test data?
    If not, how did the AB become certified to operate inside thunderstorms?
    If the AB330 was not certified to operate inside thunderstorms, why was it operating inside a thunderstorm?
    Does AF have an Opspec on their airline certificate which authorizes in-thunderstorm operations? If not, why was AF Flight Control doing everything possible to deviate AF447 around the observed thunderstorm activity?

    No plane that I know of, save a few weather research planes are certified to operate in thunderstorms.

    The hazards of these massive energy monsters is well known in the aviation community. Yet we still see flight operations world wide which do not have as their SOP thunderstorm avoidance. Why is that?
    If we are ever to bring the world wide mishap rate in commercial aviation towards zero, we must make thunderstorm avoidance SOP for every flight operation. We must eliminate this hazard to prevent another mishap.

    The mishap didn’t cause the hazard to occur, in my opinion. Rather the hazard was there all along and caused the mishap to occur.

    Right now? I think that many operations have some stated policy, but a policy is not a procedure, an SOP, by which flight crews and flight control dispatch operations are bound.

    Until that occurs, expect to see this mishap repeated on a regular basis.

    Paul Miller. Better Safe Aviation

  29. David Bright 28 June, 2009 at 7:19 pm #

    I have just been sent an email containing 2 photographs allegedly taken moments after a catastrophic decompression, precipitated by separation of the aircraft tail unit. Internal detail, despite poor quality, is quite convincing. Supposed to have been recovered from a camera memory stick found in accident debris. This is consistent with other evidence of high-altitude breakup. Is this data not yet in public domain, a possible hoax or what??

  30. koosha 29 June, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    Dear David. I was sent the same email, too. those 2 pictures are snapshots of a famous TV series named “LOST” which is a fiction story about “Ocianic Flight 815″ which craches on a mysterous island. you can find the related scene in season 1, episode 2. and so the story about the found memory stick belonging to a photografer is fake.
    Anyway, the “LOST” series is very intresting and I found it so worth to watch!

  31. David Isherwood 10 July, 2009 at 11:51 am #

    I wonder why in this technically sophisticated age the information that is stored in the fight black boxes is not transmitted instantaneously directly to a computer on the ground? With the internet and satellite cover this mist be possible? Whatever the initial cost of facility it would be out weighed by ability to have instant information about a crash or incident and avoid costly and difficult recovery operation.

  32. David Learmount 10 July, 2009 at 12:18 pm #

    Such systems exist, but use of them has traditionally been considered expensive because of the quantity of data involved and the cost of satellite transmission in oceanic and wilderness areas where there are no groundstations for datalinks. The following link takes you to a description of a system that’s on offer: http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2009/06/17/328325/paris-air-show-streaming-flight-data-back-to-base-is-possible-and.html.
    And at this link you’ll discover that Airbus is looking at the possibility: http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2009/07/07/329313/airbus-considers-flight-data-downlink-to-aid-investigations.html

  33. jmi 8 April, 2013 at 5:55 am #

    APU house fails

    Can you fly without energy ,stabilizers and perhaps tail , in the middle of a storm?

    it’s only (one more) theory.