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Air France: Brazilian Air Force Spots Debris in Atlantic Ocean

Air France Airbus A330
Air France Airbus A330

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Doug Feaver
Former Washington Post Aviation Reporter
Tuesday, June 2, 2009; 11:00 AM

Brazilian air force aircraft on Tuesday spotted debris that authorities said could be from the Air France flight carrying 228 people that disappeared over the South Atlantic a day earlier during a nasty lightning storm, wire services reported.

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Doug Feaver, former aviation reporter for The Washington Post, was online Tuesday, June 2, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news reports and what may have made the Airbus 330-200 with 228 passengers and crew members aboard disappear.

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Doug Feaver: Good morning and welcome. I look forward to your questions, although we're a long way from knowing answers at this point.

The disappearance into the Atlantic of Air France Flight 447 and the presumed loss of all 228 on board presents aviation safety experts and investigators with a challenging task. There are reports that wreckage has been spotted on the sea, but it's not confirmed that this is the wreckage being sought. Accident investigations rely heavily on an examination of wreckage and particularly the recovery of the so-called black boxes, which can tell specialists exactly what the airplane and its systems were doing.

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Frederick, Md.: Hi,

Is it too soon to speculate, terrorism?

Doug Feaver: This is an excellent question. Officials have said from the beginning they do not suspect terrorism, but they are not saying why they do not suspect it. One possible reason -- and I am speculating here -- is that no terrorist organization to my knowledge has claimed credit.

It does appear that an extraordinarily powerful weather system played an important if not the only role.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Why was the plane not vectored out of harms way? What was the reason it tried to fly through such a heavy storm?

Doug Feaver: Another excellent question. The airplane is equipped with weather radar; pilots can see the storm, and most would choose to fly around it if not over. Tops in that storm have been reported at 50,000 feet, so flying around would be the obvious option. But we don't know what they saw, what they decided, or why. Air traffic control does not communicate with planes out over the Atlantic, so vectors around the storm from ATC is not an option.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Why did it take so long to locate a missing plane? I realize that radar doesn't work below a certain altitude and that it is hard to spot something in the ocean. But, still, in this age of global position tracking, isn't there some faster way to better find missing planes? If not, what is needed to create a faster tracking system?

Doug Feaver: I think the big story to come out of this is exactly on your point. Why are we still following airplanes across the ocean with World War II radio technology? as somebody said on NPR this morning. One would think with satellite technology that airline navigation would use it. We're still using ground-based radar for the U.S. airspace system instead of the GPS that can tell me how to get to my driveway.

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Brookline, Mass.: Is it conceivable that a plane could enter a storm violent enough to break it apart?

Doug Feaver: Yes. But modern transport aircraft have an extraordinary safety record -- not only due to their construction but also to pilot awareness of the perils of flying directly into strong weather systems.

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Maryland: How hard will it be to find the black boxes if they are on the ocean floor? Will search planes have to fly almost directly overhead to pick up the signal? Can the signal be detected under 15,000 feet of water? And if the black boxes are that deep is there any hope of recovery (paging Woods Hole Research)?

Doug Feaver: Good questions. It took remote controlled submarines to recover to the Air India black boxes after many months of searching the ocean floor. I don't remember the depth and I can't find it right now, but it was a long way down.

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Washington, D.C.: Is the black box the only way we'll know what happened?

Doug Feaver: Unless there's some radio traffic out there we don't know about, or, miraculously, a survivor, I can't think of another way unless some of the wreckage can be recovered and analyzed. The recovery of a five-foot section of Air India Flight 182 -- which was the victim of a terrorist bomb that exploded over the Atlantic in 1985 -- made it possible for investigators to affirm that a bombing had occurred. More than 300 people died in that flight. The black boxes were ultimately recovered, and that certainly assisted the investigation.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why doesn't radar work over the ocean?

Doug Feaver: Radar is ground based and can only see so far from a given site. When you run out of ground on which to place a radar site, you can't see.

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Washington, D.C.: As a frequent Air France flyer, I've noticed the resistance of their pilots to turning on the seat belt sign and I think that same arrogance may have sent them through thunderstorms. Also, I think that Lufthansa planes made it through and AF 447 didn't implicates the fly by wire nature of the aircraft as the AF chairman has already said by virtue of auto message, circuits off.

Doug Feaver: I'm sure investigators will be very interested in what the Lufthansa crews have to say. Fly by wire (where electronic impulses are sent to controls instead of direct mechanical connections) may come under review as a result of this. Some safety experts have been worried about using fly-by-wire for transport aircraft, although the safety record has been excellent.

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Farragut Square, Washington, D.C.: I think this story is fascinating on a number of fronts. Interesting that when it happened, the notion of terrorism never entered my mind. Perhaps that's a good thing -- it seems the media didn't jump onto terrorism speculating, either, which I think helps prevent the rhetoric and wild speculation/"terror porn" scenario-making that seems to dominate the news vacuum.

Then again, we do get the rampant speculation on other fronts -- was it lightning? Was it a storm? How well-trained were the pilots? What's up with the aircraft itself? That can be tiresome, and, as anyone who reads Patrick Smith's excellent "Ask the Pilot" column at Salon knows, wildly inaccurate.

I'd love your thoughts on the media vacuum.

Doug Feaver: The terrorism question is one that always comes to mind; there have been two major successful terrorist attacks on jumbos -- the Air India one and the Pan American flight that was brought down over Lockerbie Scotland, also in the 1980s. So it comes to our minds. But it seems clear -- I'm speculating again -- that the "no terrorism suspected" statements have some basis in intelligence information that is not being publicly revealed.

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Washington, D.C.: Could the pilots have fallen asleep at the wheel so to speak and not realized they were flying to such a dangerous storm? Alternatively, could the weather radar have simply not been working and they flew into the storm. Finally, do we have any more meteorological information? If, in fact, a storm took the plane down, that has got to be a storm as powerful as a hurricane, right?

Doug Feaver: Sure, the pilots could have fallen asleep. But this was an experienced crew, and that seems unlikely -- especially if the plane was getting tossed around. Sure, the weather radar might not have been working. We do know from the weather people that the storm was violent and huge. Assuming nothing mechanical or structural was wrong, it would take a very powerful weather blow to down the plane. Such powerful weather happens and that is why pilots fly around it.

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Winchester, Mass.: What is the safety record of the Airbus plane? Can you tell us a little bit about the captain and pilot background

Doug Feaver: Both plane and crew have excellent records and the crew was experienced. It's important to remember that major airline accidents have become a statistical anomaly, although we have had the Miracle on the Hudson and the disaster at Buffalo in the recent past and suddenly the safety of flight is back in our minds. But if you go back to the 1970s and 1980s, there were far more major airline accidents than there are today.

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Dallas, Tex.: Could this be a result of wind shear?

Doug Feaver: There were doubtless shears in that storm. But wind shear accidents occur close to ground, when a sudden change in wind direction makes a power setting obsolete and there is not sufficient altitude for the crew to recover control.

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New Jersey: I absolutely hate flying through turbulence (and I'm sure I'm not alone). I had always read that aircraft are built to stand extreme turbulence. And yet we have an example of the crash of a modern airliner where turbulence may have played a role. Can you comment on this?

Doug Feaver: I have flown a lot and I share your dislike of turbulence. But we don't know yet exactly what role weather played here although it is the obvious prime suspect. The aviation community will want to know exactly what happened just as much as you and I do, and I expect extraordinary efforts will be made to recover whatever can be recovered. Finding the black boxes (they record not only cockpit conversation and noises but every aspect of the aircrafts technical profile) would be enormously useful.

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Rockville, Md.: I am no pilot or even an aviation person, but one of my first thoughts was to really fast downdrafts -- as the one at DFW. But at 30,000 feet that should give them time to recover. Or will it?

Doug Feaver: The DFW accidents (in the 1980s) were both wind shear accidents and occurred at very low altitudes.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the most likely scenario is a "perfect storm" of problems. Total speculation, but perhaps a powerful lightning strike knocked out avionics, including radio and cockpit lighting, the pilots were trying to fly in the dark and get systems back up and running, and flew into a powerful T-storm cell that they would have otherwise been able to avoid? Seems like it must have been a combination of factors.

Doug Feaver: I like the fact you put "perfect storm" in quotes. But every accident I covered happened not because just one thing went wrong, but several things went wrong at approximately the same time. The National Transportation Safety Board's accident reports always include a "probable cause" paragraph, and while one probability is listed as primary, there are always other issues.

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McLean, Va.: Doug,

If the plane was too far from ATC to obtain a vector around the storm front, would not the pilots have been reluctant to change course for fear of colliding with another plane?

Or are the trans-Atlantic air lanes less crowded than trans-continental ones?

Doug Feaver: You raise a good point. There is radio contact with the planes and assigned altitude lanes and procedures to provide necessary separation. But controllers can't see, as they can on radar screens. I'm too far away from the numbers to answer your other question. There's a lot traffic across the North Atlantic; I suspect somewhat less from South America to Europe, but I could be wrong.

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Washington, D.C.: I know that this is speculation on your part, but could you suggest what combination of elements might have caused the plane to crash? I've been on planes that have been struck by lighting, and the only thing that we noticed was that the lights flickered for a second. Would multiple lighting strikes combined with extreme turbulence been enough to cause the crash? Or would the flight crew had to have lost all avionics in addition to anything else? Thanks.

Doug Feaver: It's been widely and accurately reported that today's transport category aircraft are designed to withstand lightning strikes and that such strikes occur regularly. That doesn't mean lightning won't be a culprit or even the prime perpetrator in this accident, but we just don't know right now if it was an issue, and if it was, what it specifically did to damage the plane.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: "have been two major successful terrorist attacks on jumbos"

That would be THREE (or six, depending upon how you count) if you include 9/11.

Doug Feaver: Excellent point. Thank you.

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New York: This may be an amateur question, but who investigates this accident, and how is it determined? It is a French plane as France's flag carrier, but there were many Brazilians on board. I suspect the accident will be investigated by France and Brazil. Will the NTSB play a role as well? Suppose the plane was a Boeing airliner, would the U.S. participate then?

Doug Feaver: I think (I'm not positive) that Brazil will have primary responsibility. But everybody will be involved at some level -- including the plane's manufacturer, the airline, the engine manufacturers, the NTSB and the FAA and their counterparts from other countries. An accident like this draws a huge crowd of specialists.

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Washington, D.C.: As a frequent flier (and one, I might add, who has had to overcome a life-long fear of flying), Patrick Smith's columns have been a real life saver for me. From reading his book, it is my understanding that it is nearly impossible for even really rough turbulence to shake a plane out of the sky. It seems likely (especially with the reported de-pressurization of the cabin) that something else went quite horribly wrong mechanically.

Doug Feaver: I think depressurization caused by something is a likely suspect in the absence of any real information. A depressurization could explain the incapacity of the crew. If there was depressurization, could it have been caused by weather, either directly or indirectly? It's exactly questions like this that make it so important every effort be made to recover as much of the aircraft (and the black boxes) as possible.

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Cameron, N.C.: With all the speculation over lightning: what protects the "black box" from lightning or other power surges.

Doug Feaver: I don't know the technical specifics, but they are contained in "crashproof" orange (not black) boxes and almost always have survived incredible impacts and submersion.

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Arlington, Va.: Aren't all U.S.-flag planes equipped with collision warning systems? I had always assumed that planes at least from western European countries would be, too. It would seem to remove the worry (for the pilots) the flying around the storm might put them in danger of hitting another jet.

Doug Feaver: Yes, such systems are standard. And there is radio contact with controllers and other procedures to insure separation.

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Rockville, Md.: For U.S. flights to Europe -- are there gaps in the radar as well (or do Nova Scotia, Greenland and Iceland provide enough ground)?

Doug Feaver: I'm out of my area of expertise; I assume the standard North Atlantic route has better radar coverage for the reasons you cited.

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Lake Havasu City, Ariz.: Now that we have determined the magnitude of this catastrophe, what is actually the possibility of survivors ... and/or would it be possible for anyone on the plane to have survived for a time period at least? Do we think now that the plane broke apart on impact and there is no possibility of survivors?

Doug Feaver: Several have asked if it possible there are survivors. We can hope so, but I have no way of knowing and the probability seems slight. There is an impact issue as well as the expanse of the ocean.

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Purdue University: When we talk about fly-by-wire systems, we usually talk about 12 or 24 volts, something like this. Lightning is billions of volts. Is it possible the lightning could have effectually 'fried' all of the circuitry that sends commands to the control surfaces and controls the plane? In this situation the plane would have been flying and been completely uncontrollable.

Doug Feaver: Good point. Again I think the efficacy of fly-by-wire will get some renewed questioning, but the record is awfully good.

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Arlington, Va.: If a pilot in a trans-Pacific or trans-Atlantic flight meets a lot of turbulence, will he call it out to others in the area (as in the U.S.) or is everyone on their own? I am surprised that the pilots didn't warn others if they had hit some rough areas.

Doug Feaver: We may learn about such conversations as other crews making that trip that night are interviewed.

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Kalispell, Mont.: How is the "automatic" electrical failure transmission generated? And who received it if there is no flight service stations monitoring that area where it was flying?

Doug Feaver: There are system monitors on such aircraft that report all kinds of things discretely to maintenance bases. As I understand it they are not monitored in real time; it was only after this flight's crew didn't call in at the right time that the airline began to search through the data stack.

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Westchester, N.Y. : How can situations like happen while there are storm- chasing planes that fly through hurricanes? Is there a big difference between the two planes?

Doug Feaver: Those storm-penetrating planes are specifically designed for what they do, and even they have suffered an occasional catastrophic accident that claimed plane and crew.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Mr. Feaver,

Thank you for taking our questions. There were apparently earlier requests to the U.S. govt for assistance with satellite photos and radio intercepts. Anything happen on that?

Doug Feaver: I don't know, but I'm sure the U.S. government would cooperate in every way possible. In situations like this these kinds of barriers are usually quickly crossed.

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Copenhagen, Denmark: What will be done and what should be done to ensure what went wrong in this instance won't ever happen again?

Doug Feaver: I'm going to close with this. Excellent questions from many of you and thank you. This question is exactly the one aviation experts are asking themselves right now, and they are hoping that the extraordinary difficulty of the crash site will not make it impossible to find the answers.

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