Magana Cathcart & McCarthy

Air France Flight 447

Air France Disaster Worst Commercial Airline Crash Since 2001

On Wednesday, June 3 Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon privately met with family members of Flight 447 and confirmed fears that all 228 people on board perished. Gourgeon indicated that the plane either broke apart in the air or on impact with the ocean, and that there is no possibility of survivors. The plane disappeared on Sunday, May 30 on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

Debris from the plane is scattered over a wide area, with some 140 miles separating pieces of the wreckage. The crash zone is roughly 400 miles northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off of Brazil’s northern coast. The area is characterized by severe thunderstorms, rough seas and extreme depths where the ocean floor drops nearly 23,000 feet below sea level.

Recovery of the black box voice and data recorders is expected to be particularly challenging given the location of the debris. Heavy storms have delayed the arrival of submersibles which are expected to play a key role in the recovery of the black boxes. The equipment is expected to arrive on June 12th, and will include the Nautile, a mini-sub used to explore the wreckage of the Titanic.

Investigation Focusing on Automated Messages

The investigation is focusing heavily on automated messages sent from the plane as it flew threw a heavy thunderstorm. The messages indicate a series of failures that culminated with all systems shutting down, suggesting the plane broke apart in the sky or on impact with the ocean.

The chronology of events leading to this disaster is as follows:
-At 11pm local time on Sunday, the pilot sent a manual signal indicating he was flying through an area of thick electrically charged clouds accompanied by violent winds and lighting.
-Ten minutes later, the autopilot disengaged, and a key computer system switched to alternative power. Controls needed to stabilize the plane were damaged. Alarms began to sound indicating a flight system failure.
-Three minutes later, automatic messages indicate the main flight computer and wing spoilers failed. Systems monitoring air speed, altitude and direction also failed.
-One minute later, final automatic messages reported complete electronic failure and loss of cabin pressure, indications that the plane was likely plummeting toward the ocean.

Air France spokesman Nicolas Petteau directed questions about the automated messages to the BEA, the French investigation agency, whose spokesman, Martine del Bono declined to comment. Brazil’s defense minister also declined to comment, stating the investigation will be conducted by the BEA. Brazil is leading the recovery effort.

France has invited the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to assist in the accident investigation. The investigation team from the U.S. will also include General Electric Aviation, which manufactured the Airbus 330’s engines, and Honeywell International, Inc. manufacturer of the black boxes and parts of the navigation and communication systems.

Conflicting Signals on Plane’s Speed a Factor?

France’s investigation agency indicated that two findings have been established: One is that the plane’s flight path was through dangerous and stormy weather, and the other is that a series of messages from Flight 447 gave conflicting indications of the plane’s speed. Speed is a critical factor in inclement weather; aviation analyst Bill Voss indicated if the plane was flying too fast in heavy turbulence, it could break apart, whereas if it was flying too slow, it could potentially stall.

Two officials close to the investigation speaking on the condition of anonymity said an iced-over external probe or bad speed sensor could have provided inaccurate information to the jet’s onboard computer. French investigators cautioned against any speculation that the plane was flying at the wrong speed.

It should be noted that while the AirbusA330 is ruggedly built to withstand lightening strikes and heavy turbulence, it also an extremely sophisticated aircraft that flies by-wire. This means that there are no mechanical or hydraulic links between the controls in the cockpit and the plane’s fundamental aerodynamic systems. Electronic impulses are sent from the cockpit to components such as wing flaps by small wires.

The entire aircraft is controlled by a series of computers that literally take the airplane’s control out of the pilot’s hands in certain situations. One analyst quoted in the New York Times likened the possibility of whatever happened to AF 447, to a series of events that befell two Quantas jets last year. According to reports, sensors in the plane sent the wrong signals to the aircraft computers, which caused the plane to lose altitude in rapid sequence.

Magaña, Cathcart & McCarthy has investigated and successfully litigated cases involving international airlines. Two of the firm’s attorneys are general aviation pilots while one of our attorneys flew helicopters in Vietnam. The firm extends our deepest sympathy to the families of those lost in this tragic accident.

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