Air France Flight 447 Crash: Three Minutes To Plunge Into the Ocean
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Air France Flight 447 Crash: Three Minutes To Plunge Into the Ocean

Paris : France | May 27, 2011 at 11:11 AM PDT
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Nova of Investigation

May 27, 2011—VIDEO of Nova 2010 Investigation—

France Bureau of Investigations Releases Preliminary Report

Pilots wrestled with the controls of the Air France airliner for 3.5-minutes before it plunged into the Atlantic with its nose up, killing all 228 people on board in 2009, French investigators said on May 27.

In early May search teams from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute found the crucial "data recorders" from the wreck site, estimated to lie at a depth of between 2,000 to 4,000 meters (6,562 to 13,124 feet).

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Responsible for Also Finding the Titanic

This is the same company that was responsible for the joint French-American effort to find the Titanic in 1985.

The WHOI-led team searching in the Atlantic Ocean for the wreckage of Air France flight 447, which crashed in 2009, has confirmed locating pieces of the aircraft, reports the French air safety authority known as BEA. The pieces have been identified by the BEA safety investigators as parts of the Airbus 330-203 commercial airliner that disappeared in the area nearly two years ago.

The WHOI team, which left Suape, Brazil on March 22, surveyed the seafloor using three autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) called REMUS 6000s, designed and operated by WHOI. Two of the vehicles are owned by the Waitt Institute for Discovery; the third is owned and operated by Leibniz Institute for Marine Sciences IFM-GEOMAR of Germany.

Using the new underwater exploration and scientific research methods, they discovered on September 1, 1985 the sunken luxury liner R.M.S. Titanic. Investigators and crew aboard the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Research Vessel Knorr found the Titanic in more than 12,400 feet of water. It was first photographed by the new deep-towed sonar and video camera system Argo, under development in the Institution's Deep Submergence Laboratory .

France Releases Findings

France's Bureau of Investigation and Analysis (BEA) released the findings [PDF] from the flight's data recorders, which were found intact at the bottom of the Atlantic in early May. And their analysis paints a harrowing picture of Air France flight 447's literal dropping out of the sky.

According to an official report, the pilots couldn't reclaim control as the plane dropped out of the sky at a rate of 10,000 feet per minute.

French investigators said on Friday that data from the devices, known as flight recorders, revealed the final minutes of the air disaster, with two co-pilots struggling to regain control of the Airbus jet.

A preliminary report on the Air France Flight 447 crash in the Atlantic Ocean two years ago suggests that while some equipment malfunctioned, the pilots’ inability to respond properly to key instruments sent the plane into a 3.5-minute plunge that killed all 228 people aboard; however, the official reports will not be available until the summer.

Time Online reports, having departed from Rio de Janeiro bound for Paris, the co-pilots encountered trouble with the speed sensors four hours and 10 minutes into the flight. The flight was on autopilot as the pilot in command took a routine rest out of the cockpit. They were knowingly headed into a turbulent and storm-ridden spot over the Atlantic, and the black boxes show the pilots attempted to maneuver around the storm slightly. It was at this point, when they turned off autopilot to change their course, that a stall warning sounded, meaning that the airplane wasn't generating enough lift. As the co-pilot pushed the controls forward to lift the plane, the speed sensors plunged then spiked in an apparent malfunction, the report shows. “So, we've lost the speeds,” the co-pilot noted.

For nearly a minute, as the speed sensors spiked, the pilot was not present in the cockpit. By the time the pilot returned, the plane had started to fall at 10,000 feet per minute while violently rolling from side to side. But the BEA notes the crew acted in accordance with all procedures, frantically attempting to command the plane as it pitched and rolled in the sky. The plane's speed sensors never regained normal functionality as the plane began its three-and-a-half minute freefall.

The report shows the flight remained stalled throughout the drop, with its nose pointed up 15 degrees in response to the pilots' attempt to generate lift. The findings coincide with investigators' earlier theory that the sensors, known as pitot tubes, malfunctioned, possibly because of ice at such a high altitude. The BEA plans to release a full report next year, including the cause of the crash, which is still under investigation.

Questions Remain

“Why did the pilot fly the way he did? That’s the question of the day,” said Hans Weber, president of Tecop International Inc., an aviation consulting firm based in San Diego, who has given safety advice to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. “There was no indication they were flying through horrendous turbulence or weather.”

Air France said the crew made a detour to avoid bad weather, and that the pilots showed professionalism, according to an e-mailed statement by the French airline. Airbus said the report “constitutes a significant step towards the identification of the complete chain of events,” according to a release today. Airbus said last week that it had no additional recommendations to operators of the A330 aircraft, reported in Businessweek.com.

With the plane’s nose still pointed up, the jet began falling at about 10,000 feet a minute, rolling heavily from left to right, the report found. Almost one minute into the stall, the pilots had reduced engine thrust and tried pushing down on the controls to lower the nose.

Recovery of Victims

FRANCE 24 has obtained a copy of the letter on Friday, recognizing the decision to only recover certain remains was “contrary to certain public announcements relayed by the media” that all of the bodies would be brought to the surface and handed over to families.

At which time a letter was sent to the French families of the victims of the doomed Rio-Paris crash saying judges in Paris have said not all bodies will be recovered, contradicting previous statements by French and Brazilian authorities. In particular statements by Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim who told journalists in Rio de Janeiro that all of the remains that were found would be recovered. "We must then identify them and conduct DNA tests,” Jobim said.

French teams working to recover the remains of the victims of the ill-fated Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic in 2009 will only retrieve bodies that are not badly decomposed, according to a letter to families of the victims signed by the Paris judges overseeing the case.

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Report aired in Fall of 2010. One of the questions the film will raise concerns the degree of automation in modern aircraft and pilots' consequent ability to handle emergency situations. Pilots are encouraged to fly on autopilot and otherwise rely on fly-by-wire systems because it saves fuel. But it means that pilots are "task-underloaded," Ware says.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor for Allvoices.
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