French plane lost over Atlantic
June 1, 2009 6:03 AM   Subscribe

Air France flight AF 447 has gone missing over the atlantic. The flight left Rio at 2200 GMT on Sunday, and was due to land at 0910 GMT in Paris, but contact was lost at 0130 GMT, some 186 miles northeast of the Brazilian city of Natal. It had 216 passengers and 12 crew on board, including three pilots. The passengers included one infant, seven children, 82 women and 126 men.

The flight has not been heard of since, and by now would have exhausted all fuel reserves and is assumed lost. Air France said the plane sent an automatic message at 0214 GMT reporting a short circuit after turbulence, and may have been struck by lightning. Searches are ongoing in the area.

The Airbus A330-200 is a large-capacity, wide-body, twin-engine, medium-to-long-range commercial passenger airliner that was introduced in 1998. On 24th August 2001 another A330, Flight 236 from Toronto to Lisbon suffered a serious mid-air fuel leak over the atlantic, but performed the world's longest recorded glide with a jet airliner to land safely in Azores.

Modern airliners are designed to cope with lightning strikes. On average, lightning strikes a commercial jet once for every 10,000 hours it spends in the air. However, they can result in loss of instrumentation despite shielding, and loss of the positioning instruments can result in the pilots becoming severely disorientated and flying into the ground. But, according to David Learmount safety editor of Flight International magazine, there is no case of a modern airliner being lost because of a lightning strike alone.
posted by ArkhanJG (118 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Brazil had two major plane crashes in 2006 and 2007, raising concerns about the safety of air travel in Latin America’s largest country.

Gol Airlines Flight 1907 suffered a mid-air collision with a business jet in september 2006. All 154 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 737 were killed as the aircraft crashed into an area of dense rainforest, flying from Manaus, Brazil to Rio de Janeiro.
In July 2007, all 187 people on board and 12 people on the ground died when a TAM airline Airbus A320 overshot a runway at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport.

AF 447 apparent failure to send any distress message suggests that it could have been victim of a sudden, violent event – a mechanical breakdown, accidental explosion in the hold or terrorist attack, although Jean-Louis Borloo, the French transport minister, ruled out the possibility of a hijack.
posted by ArkhanJG at 6:17 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


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posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:23 AM on June 1, 2009


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posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:24 AM on June 1, 2009


Ugh. :(
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:37 AM on June 1, 2009


not good
posted by Mach5 at 6:38 AM on June 1, 2009


.

But on another note. I have NPR set as my alarm and set it for 6 am. As usual, I let it play and woke up at my usual 8:30. I subconsciously listened to the news and had a vivid dream that combined the Air France flight with Lost.
posted by Lucubrator at 6:46 AM on June 1, 2009


Heartbreaking.
posted by josher71 at 6:46 AM on June 1, 2009


I would make a lost joke here but all I can think about is I hope they are all ok and floating in the middle of the ocean awaiting rescue.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:50 AM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Admittedly, there's always some distant possibility of survivors, but realistically:

.

sigh

I live in Paris right now, so I'm making a mental list of the people I know, trying to think if there are any that I need to call and check in on...
posted by LMGM at 6:52 AM on June 1, 2009


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posted by Pope Guilty at 6:56 AM on June 1, 2009


. x 228
posted by jquinby at 6:58 AM on June 1, 2009


Though there is certainly much that could have gone wrong - there's always the possibility that things may have gone RIGHT, as Flight 1549, the Airbus 320 that ditched in the Hudson shows. Depending on the sea state, the water temperature, how smoothly the plane landed, how quickly the crew could get life rafts deployed and people moved...

But a whole hell of a lot of things would have to go right. At night, w/o instruments... (If indeed the electricals were fried by a lightning strike...)

Sigh.

Whole lot of not good going on there. I'm hoping for the best - but not expecting much more than finding an oil slick and some wreckage.
posted by JB71 at 7:08 AM on June 1, 2009


I hope for the sake of future travelers that they sort out what went wrong.

Vanity Fair published an interesting article on the 2006 midair collision.
posted by exogenous at 7:09 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


AF 447 apparent failure to send any distress message suggests that it could have been victim of a sudden, violent event – a mechanical breakdown, accidental explosion in the hold or terrorist attack, although Jean-Louis Borloo, the French transport minister, ruled out the possibility of a hijack.

This is the same kind of random speculation I hate on CNN etc.
posted by smackfu at 7:09 AM on June 1, 2009


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posted by caddis at 7:12 AM on June 1, 2009


.

Flying is by far the safest form of travel; but when it does go wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong.

Condolences to the ones left behind.
posted by orrnyereg at 7:14 AM on June 1, 2009


This is the same kind of random speculation I hate on CNN etc.

It's hardly random. It's always a distinct possibility and occasionally really does happen in real life.
posted by rocket88 at 7:15 AM on June 1, 2009


Which one of the three options in my quote are you referring to? That's what I'm complaining about.
posted by smackfu at 7:16 AM on June 1, 2009


orrnyereg: Yes, there are never any spectacular bus, train or car crashes (no links necessary--for gosh sakes), nor dozens upon dozens of near misses and issues with aircraft that you never read about. I watched once, on CNN, a plane land with only one wheel or something. Nothing went "spectacularly" wrong in that case, something just went wrong but made for absurdly over-amped TV and noticeably disappointed anchors.
posted by raysmj at 7:27 AM on June 1, 2009


I smell Lost. Someone call the Hanso Foundation.

Seriously, this is scary. Hope they get back safe. Or at least with only minor injuries.
posted by Michael Leung at 7:29 AM on June 1, 2009


Awful news, but you did a really nice job of framing the post in an informative and not ZOMGCRASH!! manner, ArkhanJG. Thanks.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:29 AM on June 1, 2009


Man. That's terrible.

How are they ever going to find the black box? Right now, it sounds like they have the location narrowed down to "the Atlantic Ocean."
posted by scottatdrake at 7:38 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Much of what we know about the interaction between lightning and aircraft, and how to protect aircraft, comes from NASA research in which instrumented airplanes were deliberately flown into thunderstorms and struck by lightning hundreds of times.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:44 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, the BBC reports that it could be worse: there could have been British nationals on board.

I'm guessing that there weren't any Australians, otherwise The Age would have been screaming about it in extra-large headlines. As such, it's just another foreign tragedy.
posted by acb at 8:06 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


We need to take action against this lightning scourge.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:15 AM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


A jet that's only 5-6 years old just going *blip* is pretty crazy. No back-up radio powered communication? Triple redundant systems just all failing in a instant?
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 8:17 AM on June 1, 2009


Currently there is no air traffic control system off the horizon line in the atlantic ocean and no way of watching/following a plane like the Air France flight on radar.
posted by Xurando at 8:24 AM on June 1, 2009


It's hardly random. It's always a distinct possibility and occasionally really does happen in real life.

Bullshit. That's fear-mongering, disguised as "it could happen". Like when my local FOX affiliate ends a story on gas prices with "Experts expect prices to peak at around 2.50 this summer, but an unexpected terrorist attack or war could send them skyrocketing."
posted by graventy at 8:24 AM on June 1, 2009 [5 favorites]


Which one of the three options in my quote are you referring to? That's what I'm complaining about.

You would have been happier if only one possible cause had been mentioned in the random speculation?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:29 AM on June 1, 2009


I'm complaining about the random speculation itself, if that wasn't clear. That's what cable news networks do to fill time.
posted by smackfu at 8:30 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whenever something bad happens concerning the ocean, my first instinct is always a Cthulhu joke. I'm trying hard to restrain myself to bad things happening in the south Pacific. You're welcome.

Also: .
posted by Caduceus at 8:33 AM on June 1, 2009


smackfu: you're right. I was quoting from the times link in my 1st comment which wasn't at all clear, but upon reflection it added little to the post but fill space, and I shouldn't have included it.
posted by ArkhanJG at 8:37 AM on June 1, 2009


exogenous: that vanity fair article on the Brazilian mid-air collision was really good, and very informative about how badly things can go wrong when a combination of mistakes mount up. Thanks.
posted by ArkhanJG at 8:42 AM on June 1, 2009


"Experts expect prices to peak at around 2.50 this summer, but an unexpected terrorist attack or war could send them skyrocketing."

Which is fear-mongering, yes, but only because they're leaving out more likely causes of prices rising far above the expected value.

There's a difference between "The cause of the disappearance of the plane is unknown, but experts suggest it may be terrorism" and "The cause of the disappearance of the plane is unknown, but experts suggest it may be mechanical failure, pilot error, or terrorism"

------------

I'm complaining about the random speculation itself

It's not random if there are previous incidents of planes disappearing without distress calls, and causes for those were subsequently discovered. Just like "the cause of last night's bright shooting star is undetermined, but scientists have suggested it may have been a meteor or a piece of space junk" is speculation, but not random speculation.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:43 AM on June 1, 2009


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posted by exhilaration at 8:44 AM on June 1, 2009


Not snark, genuine inquiry: can someone explain how the crashes of other Brazilian crafts would relate to this crash, if it's an AirFrance airplane? Are there a lot of variables that would rely on the point of departure (Brazil, Brazilian crew, etc.) as opposed to the aircraft carrier themselves?
posted by nonmerci at 8:47 AM on June 1, 2009


Requisite airliners.net forum thread(s) here and here.
posted by mazola at 8:49 AM on June 1, 2009


Whatever happened, even if the people on the plane survive contact with the water, finding them, retrieving them, and then getting them to safety is going to be difficult. My prayers togo out to the families.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:57 AM on June 1, 2009


You see, Brazilians fly like this...
posted by iamkimiam at 9:00 AM on June 1, 2009


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posted by natalinha at 9:09 AM on June 1, 2009


There's a difference between ...

Sure, but the fact that it could be terror is NOT NEWS. I think we as a society have become ingrained to question every news story as possible terrorism. Flu outbreak! (terrorism?) Explosion kills 3! (terrorism?) Plane disappears! (terrorism?) Bridge collapses! (terrorism?)
This is just more fanning of that flame.
posted by graventy at 9:09 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


nonmerci: according to speculation (again) I heard on the radio this morning, the aircraft should have still been in radio contact with Brazilian air traffic control, even after it passed out of radar range of Fernando de Noronha. The electrical failure notice was delivered by satellite. Given the prior failures of Brazilian ATC which contributed to the Gol crash, and the failure by authorities to close the wet runway (though faults in aircraft design and pilot error were also factors in both), and the current feeling that Brazilian ATC may not be all the great - also reflected in the airlines.net 2nd thread - I felt it was worth including for background as a comment.
posted by ArkhanJG at 9:10 AM on June 1, 2009


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posted by vivelame at 9:13 AM on June 1, 2009


Hmm. Following links to PPRuNE via Airliners.net, it turns out that this aircraft was grounded for four days in mid-March with some sort of electronics bay fault. Other noteworthy points include: an extremely experienced aircrew (captain with 18,000 hours, nearly 3000 hours on type; even the most junior pilot had over 3000 hours): the plane operating close to its maximum range (fuel tanks would still have been nearly full as it set out across the Atlantic): and this particular airframe being less than five years old and maintained by a flag carrier with a mostly-good maintenance record.

Airliners are full of multiple redundant systems and backups, and serious aviation accidents almost always involve not one but several things going wrong. A lightning strike alone won't take down a wide-body; but if a lightning strike damages a piece of equipment that has been incorrectly installed or repaired, and the pilots subsequently fail to work out what's wrong (due to loss of instruments) until it's too late to recover, that'd be another matter.

Unfortunately, unless they find the flight data recorder (in the Atlantic! In a storm!) we will probably never know what went wrong.
posted by cstross at 9:23 AM on June 1, 2009


I was on one of those planes, as it was hit by lightening mid-Atlantic. I, like pretty much everyone else on board, assumed we were about to die. I didn't know it was lightning, just a huge deafening and blinding explosion. (Apparently, I'm at peace with that notion, many others were not.) There was no message from the pilots for a good five minutes.

Fortunately for me and those around me, someone sitting near us was a pilot, and said, "That was lightning. Happens all the time. We won't be hearing from the pilots for a few minutes, because they are very busy right now."

There was a tremendous panic near the front of the plane, one hysterical woman had to be physically restrained for the rest of the flight, and another guy was unconscious on the floor until we landed.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:28 AM on June 1, 2009 [25 favorites]


Are there a lot of variables that would rely on the point of departure (Brazil, Brazilian crew, etc.) as opposed to the aircraft carrier themselves?

The midair collision was found by the NTSB to be partially due to the Brazilian air traffic controllers.

Also, Brazil has an awful lot of rain forest with nothing around. If a plane needed to make an emergency landing, they might be in severe trouble compared to a lot of the world.
posted by smackfu at 9:32 AM on June 1, 2009


I think we as a society have become ingrained to question every news story as possible terrorism. Flu outbreak! (terrorism?) Explosion kills 3! (terrorism?) Plane disappears! (terrorism?) Bridge collapses! (terrorism?)

Well, in the past, planes disappearing and deadly explosions have been caused by terrorism, so for those two at least, mentioning terrorism as one possible cause (among many) does not seem to be irresponsible journalism to me. If terrorism is given disproportionate weight among the possible causes in the reporting, that would be irresponsible journalism, but the mere mention of it as one of many possible causes is not.

"Must not ever mention the t-word unless we're absolutely positively certain it was the cause" is just as irresponsible as "jump all over the possibility of terrorism if it's even remotely possible as a cause."

(And "flu outbreak?" I'm unaware of any mainstream news reports which suggested that the recent swine flu outbreak was caused terrorism, although I admit I haven't read every single article on the topic. If there were some, I'd be interested to see them.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:36 AM on June 1, 2009


I can understand the lack of over-the-horizon radar. But it baffles me how there can be no idea of the planes last known position. In trans-ocean flying, they are still in radio contact - what prevents them from regularly reporting their position as reckoned from the on-board GPS?
posted by buzzv at 9:43 AM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


what prevents them from regularly reporting their position as reckoned from the on-board GPS

A lack of power.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:04 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


The NYT story reports that the last radio transmission stated they expected to enter Senegalese airspace in 50 minutes, and the last contact from the plane, "an automatic message informing air traffic control of an electrical-system malfunction" came about 44 minutes later. So shouldn't they be looking near Senegal (520 mph / 6 min = 52 miles)? Is my thinking faulty or their reporting?
posted by rikschell at 10:06 AM on June 1, 2009


@Civil_Disobedient: By the word "regulating", I meant that they would report their position at regular intervals before there was trouble, thus giving a sort of breadcrumb trail to their final position.

And furthermore, I'm baffled about this as well: aircraft carry LETs detectable by COSPAS-SARSAT for latitudes less than 70°. They are G-force activated. Also, the flight data recorders have underwater locating beacons operable to depths of 20,000 feet. Huh? Why don't these at least give a clue as to where the plane is? EPIRBs work on ships. Why not LETs on planes?
posted by buzzv at 10:08 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


^"regularly"
posted by buzzv at 10:10 AM on June 1, 2009


buzzv, i am guessing they do have that, and it's sitting at the bottom of the ocean, but they want to find wreckage or see what is attached to the homing beacon before they announce what amounts to "they are all dead".
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 10:29 AM on June 1, 2009


Flying is by far the safest form of travel;

That's airline PR. Per minute spent in the vehicle in transit, you're more likely to die in a plane than in a car. The trick is that is planes are much faster than cars, so per mile traveled, a mile in a plane takes less time than a mile in a car, so you don't need to be in the vehicle for as long, so in that sense, it's "safer".

Cars do have higher rates of non-fatal injury though, so planes are safer in that sense too.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:39 AM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


harlequin, given that the objective of transportation is to move yourself some distance, it seems the comparison using miles traveled is fair. If I need to get across the country, and my choices are car or plane, the plane wins on speed and safety.
posted by knave at 11:03 AM on June 1, 2009


According to this NYT article (for some reason now not uploading), a search is underway near remote archipelago of Fernando de Noronha. Some joker has added "Air France" to the list of beaches on the map of the island from the archipelago's own website.
posted by ornate insect at 11:05 AM on June 1, 2009


Some updates.

rikschell: 3 french search and rescue planes left from Dakar, Senegal, and are searching the route in reverse, in addition to the brazilian planes. Spain has also dispatched search and rescue.

The final automated alert included a depressurization warning in addition to the electrical failure. Severe lightning strikes can cause tiny holes in the fuselage and wings, but rarely cause a significant problem.

None of the 3 emergency beacons that might help locate the (probable) crash site have been detected so far.

If both engines had failed, but otherwise intact, the plane would have had at least half an hour of glide time; some are speculating that it remained airborne but incommunicado for an hour or more, which drastically widens the search area. Even if it had gone into a fatal dive immediately after the final transmission, it could be anything up to 15 miles away from its last known position, and ongoing storm conditions in the area are hindering search efforts.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:05 AM on June 1, 2009


Hm, I'm now guessing that "entering Senegalese airspace" does not mean entering their territory, but refers to a handoff in the middle of the ocean, where the pilots would contact Senegal air traffic control rather than Brazil. So instead of being approx 52 miles off the coast of Africa, it would put them 52 miles from the middle of the ocean, which does indeed sound much, much worse.
posted by rikschell at 11:18 AM on June 1, 2009


like buzzv, I'm puzzled that a plane can just disappear. I would have thought there would be an override device designed to automatically send out a tracking signal upon loss of power, sudden drop in altitude, or a plane hitting water.
posted by ornate insect at 11:26 AM on June 1, 2009


According to this NYT article (for some reason now not uploading), a search is underway near remote archipelago of Fernando de Noronha. Some joker has added "Air France" to the list of beaches on the map of the island from the archipelago's own website.

The NYTimes article mentions the origin of the name. Irony, but not in-poor-taste humor on the part of a Web developer.

"The site notes that one part of the main island is called Air France, after an abandoned building there that was built by the French carrier in the 1930s, when the island was one of several stops on early transatlantic flight routes."
posted by xetere at 11:51 AM on June 1, 2009


ArkhanJG, your French is superior to mine, as all I have been able to do is try and decipher the running ledes on French TV here in the hotel tonight ... and rikschell, yes, "entering Senegalese airspace" DOES mean the "handoff" from one area of air traffic control to another ... and sadly and horrifically, that does mean that Flight AF 447 was a long way from home.

Sitting in an airport hotel next to the Paris CDG airport right now tonight, and thinking that what I thought was a bad day today (I missed my flight back home today, as a result of some misguided helpful Parisians) pales in comparison to what was happening to the 220+ souls (the French TV seem to still be sorting all of that out, over nine hours later) earlier today.

Their flight was to have been arriving this morning at about the same time that mine left. By the time I made to the United Airlines ticket counter, (I only missed mine by about 20 minutes, so they booked me on the next day's flight) the first hints of realization of what had happened were becoming clearer. It is strange to see how shock slowly spreads, both across the visage of an individual and between people.

I did noticed the gathering of photographers and news teams, but didn't find out until later on the bus to the hotel (extemporizing your travel plans is always so much fun), why I was seeing airport staff gathering in small clusters, whispering. In hindsight, after Skyping my new plans to my wife, I realized that I not heard nor saw any TV in the terminal. It was only the radio report on the bus that told me what had happened.

There is always the hope of a safe ditching, but odds are not good. I can only express my sympathies for the friends and families of those who have been touched by this disaster. And hope that we all remember that we are touched by these things.

.
posted by aldus_manutius at 12:06 PM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


From the AP:

A missing Air France jet carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris ran into a towering wall of thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean, officials said Monday, fearing that all aboard were lost.

If this bears out to be true, it begs the question how a modern airliner, equipped with weather radar, privy to detailed weather briefings, satellite imagery and whatnot manages to "run into" a squall line. Thunderstorms are not to be messed with. Aircraft typically fly around them, not through them - if all else fails you simply turn back and try another day.
posted by oxidizer at 12:14 PM on June 1, 2009


Meanwhile, the BBC reports that it could be worse: there could have been British nationals on board.

Five of them were, it seems, and also people from at least 29 other countries: Passenger nationalities revealed (bbc).
posted by effbot at 12:18 PM on June 1, 2009


Some joker has added "Air France" to the list of beaches on the map of the island from the archipelago's own website.

Actually the article you linked to says "The site notes that one part of the main island is called Air France, after an abandoned building there that was built by the French carrier in the 1930s, when the island was one of several stops on early transatlantic flight routes."
posted by mattbucher at 12:42 PM on June 1, 2009


Thunderstorms are not to be messed with. Aircraft typically fly around them, not through them

Reminds me of what I read in this LA Times Article:

Told there was no communication from the cockpit about mechanical problems, Carlos Camacho, the head of Brazil's National Pilots Union, told Terra Magazine that the plane may have disintegrated in flight.

"If it did, there would be no signal, no communication, no transponder, nothing. The probability that it has happened is big considering the data that did arrive and the data that did not arrive," Camacho said.

posted by washburn at 12:43 PM on June 1, 2009


Aircraft typically fly around [thunderstorms], not through them

I wonder how much of this is left up to the discretion of the pilots, airlines, and ATC depending on context, and how much the decision-making process varies from country to country and region to region. As a fairly routine traveller, I've certainly had my share of flights severely delayed or even cancelled outright due to inclement weather, but fwiw, over on this NYT comment thread, one commenter writes:

I spend a huge amount of time on airplanes. During the past 30 years domestic carriers have become increasingly careful about avoiding turbulence and weather disturbances whenever possible. While this results in flight delays, the accident rate from weather-related causes on domestic carriers has declined significantly over the past three decades.

I'm not sure that all the European carriers have the same philosophy. I have taken four Air France flights over the past three weeks, and even to my casual eye, it seemed that weather issues were not taken as seriously as they are by American carriers. — calyban, fairfax, california

posted by ornate insect at 12:45 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


the plane may have disintegrated

I'm sorry, but a plane of this size does not just "disintegrate," even if struck by lightning during a severe storm. That's a "Bermuda Triangle" non-explanation.
posted by ornate insect at 12:49 PM on June 1, 2009


Meanwhile, the BBC reports that it could be worse: there could have been British nationals on board.

I fail to see how this makes it worse.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:06 PM on June 1, 2009


it begs the question how a modern airliner, equipped with weather radar, privy to detailed weather briefings, satellite imagery and whatnot

Ha, you wish. General aviation is far more advanced on that front than the airlines. The reason is that it's a lot easier to certify a piece of equipment for your Cessna than it is for an Airbus running scheduled commercial routes.

Weather radar is useful, but has limited range. If you're in charge of a flight like this, your route is already planned, anyway, and you took the storms into account before you left the ground. Now take into account a sudden catastrophic power loss and chaotic storms, and it's very easy to imagine an airplane getting tangled in a squall line.

I designed the equipment for these "detailed weather briefings" and "satellite imagery" for a couple years. It's actually pretty impressive the amount of data you can get, but it's limited in scope, and it depends on the infrastructure on the ground.

XM and Sirius both offer aviation weather as channels that can be picked up by on-board receivers. The sheer amount of data you can get is staggering, even for someone trained on it - graphical radar, precipitation, and cloud cover overlays; METARs and TAFs, winds aloft, icing probabilities, and more. Airlines do not have this technology yet, because it's very costly to get equipment like this certified and get crews trained. It also generally doesn't do much for the airline pilot (in my opinion); at 30-40 thousand feet, you're well above most of the weather. So, it's good for takeoff and landing, but you can get much more up-to-date information from your onboard radar and from the data that dispatch sends you. What you get off the satellite feeds can be delayed by up to 15 minutes or more for the radar data (the most frequently updated information you can get). Airliners going 350 kts can go pretty far in fifteen minutes and laggy data can be more of a hindrance than a help at those speeds.

One more problem: XM and Sirius only work in America. That means CONUS and a short distance into Canada. There are two reasons for this; first, their satellites aren't in the right orbits to give people outside of that range good reception. Second, the infrastructure drops off outside of that range. There are not many weather stations in northern Canada.

There are some international options to get this information; Iridium (the satellite phone folks) offer it, and my old company pushed out an Iridium receiver just after I left. The same caveats apply, though - it's time-lagged and limited by the available infrastructure on the ground. Iridium also has a much lower throughput than XM/Sirius. I know Iridium's weather products are available in Europe, but I don't know about the southern hemisphere. Again, though, you don't find this technology on airliners.

Airlines push meteorological data from dispatch offices to their aircraft using pretty primitive means. I'm pretty sure most of them still have printers in the cockpit for this purpose. And here is a good point for a story:

I was delayed on a JetBlue flight some months ago due to ridiculous congestion at JFK. They boarded us on the airplane and we sat there for at the gate for hours. Due to other circumstances, they had to open the doors again and let some people off, and during that time the pilots came out into the cabin. I chatted with the copilot about the avionics in the cockpit, and I asked him how they got their weather data. I figured that, since JetBlue has DirecTV and XM radio for the passengers, they might utilize that in the cockpit as well.

"Oh, we listen in to the Weather Channel on the TV." A full glass cockpit, shiny blinkenlights everywhere, and they're watching the Weather Channel.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:10 PM on June 1, 2009 [11 favorites]


instead of "disintegrate" Camacho meant "broke up in flight".

Since disintegrate does mean "broke up in flight" I don't think there's really a terminological problem here. It's a pretty familiar usage.
posted by washburn at 2:06 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Results 1 - 10 of about 747 for "disintegrate in flight". (0.29 seconds)

It's a sign.
posted by smackfu at 2:19 PM on June 1, 2009


literal disintegration or something to that effect

Literal or not, the word "disintegrate" still doesn't mean "disappear":

Main Entry:
dis·in·te·grate
1 : to break or decompose into constituent elements, parts, or small particles
2 : to destroy the unity or integrity of
posted by effbot at 2:26 PM on June 1, 2009


Text messages from passengers?

Passageiros enviaram SMS aos familiares

Is that even theoretically possible if they were in the middle of the Atlantic?
posted by effbot at 2:30 PM on June 1, 2009


I still fail to understand how in the year 2009 they still don't have any kind of wireless black box system. Airlines have been offering in-flight, over-the-ocean satellite calling for years now, and are even offering in-flight wifi. How hard could it be to send the plane's existing black box communications over the air to a central server somewhere? Why can't the cockpit microphones broadcast a continuous transmission via satellite to a location where it is automatically recorded? As someone touched upon in an earlier comment, at the very least, couldn't they have a GPS receiver on board constantly broadcasting their exact location, so that if something did happen, at least they'd know the last known location of the aircraft exactly, as well as the speed and direction it was traveling? I just can't believe it makes that much of a difference because these are large aircraft. If the FAA is making it that difficult to put such technologies into place, then someone needs to have a talk with the FAA.
posted by PigAlien at 2:33 PM on June 1, 2009


Planes can break apart but they generally don't scatter into nothing as ornate insect was getting at.

That wasn't what Carlos Camacho was getting at either, something that should be obvious for anyone who actually knows what the word means. So who's doing the quibbling here?
posted by effbot at 2:39 PM on June 1, 2009


Huh, I was going to post a comment which was essentially what PigAlien just wrote. Still, I would imagine the first response would be: the cost of requiring such abilities on all planes for all carriers would be prohibitive, especially with the state modern carriers are apparently in. Still, it's rather silly not to have a standard which calls for all commercial passenger aircraft to broadcast their location for these situations.
posted by ooga_booga at 2:55 PM on June 1, 2009


Still, I would imagine the first response would be: the cost of requiring such abilities on all planes for all carriers would be prohibitive,

One of the most valuable, enduring, and universally applicable truths I have learned in my time on this orb is that for any question that begins, "Why don't they...?" the answer is "Money."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:20 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


@ five fresh fish who stated:

"I fail to see how this makes it worse."

So, does your moniker refer to your equivalent collective brainpower, or sensitivity?

... and if the world is a better place for the loss of five Britishers, perhaps you'd like to try explaining that fact to the families of the other 223 people that are gone.

You insensitive, unintelligent git.
posted by stonesy at 5:38 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I believe fff was asking how the loss of 5 Brits + 223 non-Brits would be worse than the loss of 228 non-Brits; not, as stonesy seems to interpret the question, how the loss of 5 Brits + 223 non-Brits would be worse than the loss of 223 non-Brits only.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:45 PM on June 1, 2009


Plane crashes freak us out because they involve multiple fears, stated or unstated.

The suddenness and randomness hit us hard too, even when we don't know the people affected, because it could just as easily have been us.

A moment of pause is only human.

.
posted by bwg at 5:59 PM on June 1, 2009


Precisely. I'll let your poor comprehension skills, and the low-quality insults that arise from that handicap, speak for themselves, stonesy. No apologies expected nor desired from you.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:04 PM on June 1, 2009


That's airline PR. Per minute spent in the vehicle in transit, you're more likely to die in a plane than in a car.

Yeah. Good thing I don't take a two hour flight to work each day.

In other words per minute in vehicle is just as loaded and reverse-engineered as per trip, and probably a lot more so.

I don't decide to take a 340-minute trip. I decide to go to Chicago. Which is safer?
posted by rokusan at 6:35 PM on June 1, 2009


You know, gang, the words "random" and "literal" get ass-fuckedly abused around here every day, in dozens of threads.

Do we really have to use this one to drag them out? Can we not?
posted by rokusan at 6:36 PM on June 1, 2009


From the CNN front-page article:
But about 4:15 a.m. Paris time, Flight 447's automatic system began a four-minute exchange of messages to the company's maintenance computers, indicating that "several pieces of aircraft equipment were at fault or had broken down," he said.
So the communication capability is already there. I'm not clear why they wouldn't include the location information.
posted by smackfu at 7:01 PM on June 1, 2009


Further reading on airliners.net reveals that system is called ACARS.
posted by smackfu at 7:07 PM on June 1, 2009


from the NYT:

The plane had beamed out several signals that its electrical systems had malfunctioned and, according to one report, that it had lost cabin pressure. The signals were sent not as distress calls, however, but as automated reports to Air France’s maintenance system, and were not read for hours, until air traffic controllers realized that the plane’s crew had not radioed in on schedule.

[...]

As is common with trans-ocean flights, it was too far out over the sea to be tracked on land-based radar from Brazil or Senegal. Whether its location was captured by satellite or other planes’ radar is not known yet.


I'm still at a loss as to why no satellite positioning system is in place to track planes in real time that go outside radar or that experience sudden power losses, etc., given that the technology for such a system is readily available. The NYT reports that the search for wreckage...[includes] a vast swath of ocean between Brazil and the African coast. In other words, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack, precisely because the way planes are tracked when they are flying outside the reach of radar appears to be about as primitive as smoke signals.
posted by ornate insect at 7:21 PM on June 1, 2009


@ five fresh fish

we don't talk at people here. we respect them.
posted by caddis at 7:28 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah. Good thing I don't take a two hour flight to work each day.

Perhaps, but one of my buds, ex-air force, flies his personal plane to work just like the rest of use use our cars. To be frank, he has had a couple of very, very hairy situations. I think he is likely an above average pilot, based upon the fact that he is so far above average at every thing else he does. Even given this he has managed to scare himself in his commute. Flying is safer per mile due to all the extra care, but it is inherently far more dangerous and even the pilots know it. In a car or other land vehicle there is wide margin for error, in a plane, pretty much there is almost no margin for error. Welcome to the friendly skies.
posted by caddis at 7:36 PM on June 1, 2009


Case of Missing Jetliner Shows Technology's Limits (Washington Post):

Analysts were scrambling to figure out exactly what kind of satellite-enabled communication systems the plane was equipped with. Using the latest gear, airplanes can automatically transmit information such as the plane's position, altitude, heading and speed. But not all airplanes flying across oceans are equipped with such technology.
posted by ornate insect at 8:09 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do we really have to use this one to drag them out? Can we not?

We must literally drag them out. It's totally random of you to get annoyed by this. Sheesh.
posted by The World Famous at 8:15 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


@ArkhanJG

Brazil had two major plane crashes in 2006 and 2007, raising concerns about the safety of air travel in Latin America’s largest country.

Gol Airlines Flight 1907 suffered a mid-air collision with a business jet in september 2006.


Yeah. Especially since this accident happened because the US business had his collision warning device off. Really big mistake of the Brazilians!
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:11 PM on June 1, 2009


You may want to read up on that accident: "The CENIPA report concludes the accident was caused by mistakes made by both air traffic controllers and the Embraer pilots, whereas the NTSB focuses on the controllers and the ATC system, concluding that both flight crews acted properly but were placed on a collision course by the air traffic controllers."
posted by smackfu at 10:18 PM on June 1, 2009



@ornate insect

> the plane may have disintegrated

I'm sorry, but a plane of this size does not just "disintegrate,"


Never heard of convertible planes?
http://books.nap.edu/books/12560/xhtml/images/p20016d12g23001.jpg
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:22 PM on June 1, 2009


And so the @ convention unleashes its viral plague upon MetaFilter.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:26 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


smackfu, read up I did.
http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2009/01/air_crash200901?currentPage=all
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:31 PM on June 1, 2009


Then you'll have seen that while the US business jet pilots made the mistake of turning off their transponder (and thus the TCAS, but with no audio warning) and didn't query that they hadn't been asked to change altitude when they changed heading, neither of the brazilian ATC involved noticed that they had two airplanes on a collision heading at the same altitude, or that the transponder had been turned off - nor indeed did they try to confirm what altitude the plane was at for almost an hour when their own radar placed it at a different altitude than it was supposed to be, even though they never told the business plane to change.

The handover between ATC was also botched, with the US pilots trying and failing repeatedly to restablish radio communications on the assigned frequencies in the crucial final few minutes.

So yes, the US pilots made several grave errors, but brazilian ATC still put two planes in the same air at the same time at the same altitude. TCAS may well have allowed the planes to take emergency evasive action, but they shouldn't have been put in a position to need it in the first place.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:08 PM on June 1, 2009


@

Stop that!
posted by bwg at 11:09 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm still at a loss as to why no satellite positioning system is in place to track planes in real time

We're working on it, give us a minute!

No, seriously, we're actually working on. Maybe I can find some documentation that's releasable.
posted by backseatpilot at 3:58 AM on June 2, 2009


ADS-B uses (would use) GPS to track planes in real time. It's not fully implemented yet, and does not involve the aircraft transmitting their position by satellite, so might not help locate the wreckage in this case since there are no ground stations on the ocean (but I wonder if another aircraft might have picked up the Air France transponder).

backseatpilot, are you referring to something different?
posted by exogenous at 5:11 AM on June 2, 2009


Six-degrees-connections, but a (Brazilian) friend of an (Indian) friend says that the French community in Rio is devastated; everyone apparently expects _someone_ they know to have perished. Indeed, the Brazilian friend-of-friend says she personally knows two people who were on that plane.

(It's when you start making these person-to-person connections that headlines suddenly start seeming very human indeed. I mean, I can't even imagine how it will be to suddenly lose someone dear in this mysterious fashion.)

.
posted by the cydonian at 5:39 AM on June 2, 2009


Brazilian news are reporting that a number of pieces of airplane wreckage have been found by the Air Force. No news of survivors.

First sighting was a R99 that during the night saw signs of wreckage 650 km northeast of Fernando de Noronha on radar. During the morning two C130 were sent to the same place and spotted oil and kerosene, one seat, white debris, a drum and life jacket all in 60 km range and all inside Brazilian territory, but they could not confirm it was the plane yet - navy ships are in the area, and will be looking for serial numbers to confirm if the wreckage does belong to AF447.

The location reportedly corresponds to the report of a TAM aircrew that saw glowing spots on the high sea on its path between Europe and Brazil, about 600 km off the island Fernando de Noronha.

The final automated transmission of AF447 apparently lasted 4 minutes, and transmitted 10 different errors, including electrical faults, turbulence, loss of pressurization and a fast vertical drop of the cabin.

Previous
posted by ArkhanJG at 6:07 AM on June 2, 2009


From the NYT "Hans Weber, head of the Tecop aviation consulting firm in San Diego, offered a hypothesis about the episode, based on his knowledge of severe losses of altitude by two Qantas jets last year.

The new Airbus 330 was a “fly-by-wire” plane, in which signals to move the flaps are sent through electric wires to small motors in the wings rather than through cables or hydraulic tubing. Fly-by-wire systems can automatically conduct maneuvers to prevent an impending crash, but some Airbus jets will not allow a pilot to override the self-protection mechanism.

On both Qantas flights, the planes’ inertia sensors sent faulty information into the flight computers, making them take emergency measures to correct problems that did not exist, sending the planes into sudden dives.

If the inertia sensor told a computer that a plane was stalling, forcing it to drop the nose and dive to pick up airspeed, and there was simultaneously a severe downdraft in the storm turbulence, “that would be hard to recover from,” Mr. Weber said."
posted by dhruva at 8:19 AM on June 2, 2009


.
posted by LakesideOrion at 8:24 AM on June 2, 2009


Here is a detailed weather analysis for the flight. Looks like it was quite nasty up there.
posted by exogenous at 8:31 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Washington Post (may require registration) has a puzzling graphic that shows where the alarms were triggered and where the wreckage was found. The wreckage appears to way farther out than where the alarms were triggered, which makes me wonder how the plane could have made it that far (if it was under pilot control, I would have expected it to turn-around back towards Brazil).
posted by forforf at 9:42 AM on June 2, 2009


The a330 isn't a particularly new plane. It was introduced into commercial operations in 1994. There has only been one other crash with loss of life with this type, a demonstration flight that took place shortly after entry into service. According to wikipedia 600 of these planes are flying today.
posted by Catfry at 11:42 AM on June 2, 2009


The wreckage appears to way farther out than where the alarms were triggered

For a plane flying at 500 mph, that blown-up diagram isn't really that big. Especially considering it's unclear how they got a position for the automated messages.
posted by smackfu at 11:57 AM on June 2, 2009


@

Stop that!


Stop wh@t?
posted by multivalent at 12:12 PM on June 2, 2009


ADS-B uses (would use) GPS to track planes in real time. It's not fully implemented yet, and does not involve the aircraft transmitting their position by satellite, so might not help locate the wreckage in this case since there are no ground stations on the ocean

The current system for tracking most trans-Atlantic flight seems absurdly antiquated: as I understand it, once a plane is out of range of radar the only systematic method for keeping track of its coordinates consists of the regularly scheduled radio transmissions from the pilots. If a real-time tracking system had been in place in this instance, the whereabouts of the downed plane could have been established far quicker, and it's even possible lives could have been (in some cases, if not this one) saved.
posted by ornate insect at 2:41 PM on June 2, 2009


Sorry, I'm coming up dry using work's internal document search thingie. Google searching just gives me a bunch of crap patent websites. I could have sworn I heard something about satellite replacing ground radar, though (that was not ADS-B).

As a curiosity, how do ships deal with being hundreds of miles outside of any nation's controlled waters? I'm sure the safety requirements to put some fancy electronics on a boat are not nearly as stringent as aircraft, but it would be interesting to compare them.

As far as aircraft and the lack of sophistication traveling across the ocean, two questions: first, what nation has any vested interest in you flying over a patch of water? There are no controlled airspaces out there, as far as I know. Second, who's going to fund, staff, and control CNS/ATM stations in the middle of the sea? That's why you still need HF radios on airliners.

(Seriously, though, you want old school? I've been on (40-year-old government-owned) aircraft that have had sextant ports.)
posted by backseatpilot at 4:04 PM on June 2, 2009


acb: Meanwhile, the BBC reports that it could be worse: there could have been British nationals on board.

five fresh fish: I fail to see how this makes it worse.

stonesy: [how dare you]

Surely acb was being sarcastic there? And so stonesy understandably read fff's comment as a contradiction of acb's underlying point?
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 4:55 PM on June 2, 2009


I guess that's possible. I find it difficult to interpret, because he provides this link, which tells us there are dead Brits. So the use of "could" doesn't really make sense.

I did plow through the entire linked article just now. There's not one mention of how many people in all went down with that plane. It is almost entirely a long wail about a few British families. That may be what acb was sarcastically/cynically/caustically/sneeringly/whateverly commenting upon.

I can fully appreciate that people are much more interested in what happens to people within their extended monkey tribe, but shirley to betsy the BBC should at least mention that 228 people have died. How tacky of them to not have that fact in the article.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:41 PM on June 2, 2009


Your link is just one story specifically about the British missing. The bulk of the BBC news coverage is of the disaster as a whole, quite naturally. There is nothing untoward about our national broadcaster providing a short piece on the fact that some British nationals were on board the flight.

FFS.
posted by idiomatika at 2:56 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


The link exogenous posted above comprising a weather analysis is amazing: not only for its rigorous technical analysis but also for those who have left comments. The commentators include a number of pilots who have previously flown this route or similar.
posted by rongorongo at 3:53 AM on June 3, 2009


On May 27th, in Brazil, there were bomb threats against an Air France flight going to Paris (google cache link). Let's all hope this is just heresy and rumor.
posted by Mach5 at 4:47 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I could have sworn I heard something about satellite replacing ground radar, though (that was not ADS-B).

Maybe "Nextgen"? ADS-B is a "cornerstone" of Nextgen and calls for just that - replacing ground radar with self-reporting of position by aircraft using satellite-derived data. link.
posted by exogenous at 6:09 AM on June 3, 2009




Two bodies from AF 447 recovered from the atlantic

We confirm the recovery from the water of debris and bodies from the Air France plane," Col Amaral said at a news conference in the northern city of Recife.

He later added that two male bodies had been found, as well as objects linked to passengers known to be on the flight, including a suitcase with a plane ticket and a backpack with a computer inside.

"It was confirmed with Air France that the ticket number corresponds to a passenger on the flight," Col Amaral said.

A blue seat was also found, and Air France is checking the serial number to see whether it came from the flight.

The remains were picked up some 800km (500 miles) north-east of the islands of Fernando de Noronha, off Brazil's northern coast.
posted by ArkhanJG at 1:26 PM on June 6, 2009


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