Some Thoughts on the Air France A330 Accident Off Brazil

Accidents/Incidents, Air France

It’s been well over 24 hours since we first heard that an Air France A330 disappeared over the ocean on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. In that time, I’ve seen a million different theories about what happened, and that always makes me angry. We have no idea what happened here, and really, we’ll be lucky if we ever find out. Here’s what we do know about the accident.

  • Air France #447, operated by a 4-year-old A330, left Rio at 703p bound for Paris
  • The airplane was off the coast of Brazil, beyond radar coverage when it hit some rough weather
  • Something bad happened and a bunch of technical faults were automatically sent to Air France, but the pilots never sent a distress message
  • The plane never arrived in Paris

Really, that’s all we know. And remember, while there were storms in the area alongside reports of strong turbulence, we have nothing to indicate that turbulence caused the accident. Also, those automated technical fault messages that were received by Air France stating that there had been an electrical problem and pressurization was lost (among other things)? Even if that did happen (false reports are always possible), we still have no clue why any of that happened, and there could be a million explanations.

There were no distress calls from the pilots, and I can only think of three reasons that might happen. Either the radios failed (highly unlikely), the pilots did this on purpose (even more unlikely), or it happened so fast that there wasn’t even time for a radio call (most likely). It makes me sick just thinking about what it was like on that plane toward the end.

I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t going to end up like the TV show “Lost.” This airplane is likely in a million pieces scattered on and in the Atlantic Ocean. At some point, search teams will find a debris field, and they might be able to put together some fact-based theories. But the true jewel here will be the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder; the so-called black boxes. Those might be at the bottom of the ocean, but hopefully they’ll be recovered with good data still retrievable. Without those, it’s going to be incredibly hard to figure out what really happened.

Right now, the list of suspects is long, and it’s certainly baffling. Airplanes just don’t fall out of the sky, not even during severe turbulence. There were other airplanes flying through the area that made it safely, and I’m sure those pilots will be interviewed. For example, Iberia 6024 left Rio for Madrid 20 minutes after the Air France flight. Lufthansa 507 left Sao Paulo for Frankfurt about half an hour before the Air France flight, so they might have been fairly close to each other. Air France itself had another A330 leave Sao Paulo for Paris only 27 minutes later. And these are just some of the aircraft in the neighborhood.

Hopefully we will learn more about what happened here, because none of the theories that keep being flung out there by the media seem to make sense on their own. As always, this will end up being a series of different problems that come together to form a true catastrophe.

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53 comments on “Some Thoughts on the Air France A330 Accident Off Brazil

  1. My condolences to the families of all those on board. 2009 has been a year of trouble in the skies and it’s only June. Best hopes for safe flying the rest of the year and beyond.

  2. I also send my condolences out. I agree with you Cranky. Just like in Buffalo, from the moment the plan crashed … every media outlet knew why it had crashed. Even the NTSB flipped flopped back and forth day in and day out shortly after the crash about how it happened. I think legislation should be passed to place a gag order on the NTSB until the investigation is complete. No matter how long that takes. To bad we cant gag the media too.

  3. This is one of those areas that as soon as a plane crashes the media starts asking the same stupid question “Why did it crash”. Haven’t these people learned that it could take a couple of years for the answer to be known (if ever). But the worst is when the TV media like CNN will have some ‘expert’ on who will give all these reasons as to what happen. This type of reporting is worthless and can only stir people up or make them scared to fly with misinformation from people who have no knowledge as to what happen or is happening now.

  4. A very good summary of what we know and why we should not have rampant speculation (driven by the Media) as to what happened. You have to feel very, very sorry for the families of those on board, and yes, it must have been awful.

  5. The unknown is probably the worst thing.

    Family of those who are most likely dead have every right to speculate.

    Although the desire to have immediate answers and fixes is a cultural artifact that has become most tiresome. For better or worse things fail, and there was some type of massive failure here. It will take quite some time to determine what went wrong.

  6. Hi Cranky,

    I think we’re all familiar with your sensibilities regarding responding to these sad events. However, for a change, some aspects of the British media have been somewhat restrained in their surge to hypothesize every possible cause, and have instead focussed on the somewhat rare set of events surrounding the loss of this plane. There’s something desperately lonely about flying around that part of the world. I sincerely hope this was as little suffering as possible for those involved, and that sufficient evidence can be found to understand how such a terrible accident could occur.

  7. There was an A330 flying from Singapore to Perth in October, 2008 which encountered some severe turbulence, and that resulted in 12 people suffering serious injuries and 103 people suffering minor injuries. There were no fatalities.

    As you guys said, there is nothing more we know about the Air France crash than the very basic facts that crankyflier listed above. Everything else is nothing but mere speculation.

    But perhaps the crash investigators will get some clues to what happened by looking at what happened in that incident to flight QF 72. But yes, first of all the black box needs to be recovered from the ocean floor (where I suppose it should be now). This is going to be one of the most arduous and difficult investigations in recent aviation crash history.

    I am by no means an aviation expert, but after watching numerous programmes of Air Crash Investiagtion on National Geographic Channel over the last 4 years, it just strikes me that maybe, just maybe, there might be some connection between these 2 incidents.

    The thought of what exactly happened to AF 447 is extremely frightening.



  8. A major correction to my previous post- The QF 72 flight did not encounter severe turbulence as I wrote, but rather it had some major problems with the ADIRU. The ADIRU provided false information which led the aircraft to severely pitch down on 2 separate occasions during the flight. The aircraft landed safely at another airport in Western Australia (not its intended destination of Perth).

    Sorry for the mistake in my earlier post.

  9. After a period of years without a fatal accident, the airlines had a spate of accidents. Two were bird strikes; others were a mixed bag.

    The Air France A330 seemed an unlikely candidate: experienced pilot, newer aircraft recently inspected, weather radar …

    There are serious storms along the equator, higher and stronger than even new airliners are capable of withstanding. Practice is to find a place between cells — without flying too very far out of the way and behind schedule. This policy has risks not shared with the passengers or government regulators.

  10. Nicholas – I actually have no issues with private speculation. I do it with friends who are knowledgeable about the industry because that’s the natural thing to do. Everyone wants to figure out what happened, especially in a situation as baffling as this one. It’s just when the media comes out and makes people think that they know the answer (it’s lightning, or it’s turbulence) that bothers me. When people speculate, they know that they’re speculating. But when media outlets report, it makes it sound like they know the answer when in fact they don’t.

    Bobber – That’s good to hear and it’s quite surprising. I know I sound like a broken record on this, but I still like to point it out after each accident and make it clear what we know and what we don’t. For those outside the industry, it might be helpful information (I hope).

    Adarsh – I’m sure that as part of this review, every possible A330 incident that could be remotely related will be reviewed. That Qantas incident is one that will be worth looking at further, just because they need to cast their nets as wide as possible in this search for the answer.

  11. Many planes and ships have disappeared off of brazilian, Atlantic/Caribbean sea, this Air France will be the most sad and mysterious triangle plane incident of our time. If you search for accounts of other mayday calls in this area thru that last century , there is always a bad thunder storm that could have sometime to do with gravitational pull down to sea and other people say there are time windows that human aliens use to teleport to their earth, second one far fetched but who really understands the earth 100%…. You make your conclusion, because the Brazil Air Force is clueless at the moment

  12. This crash caused me to think how ETOPS works on a plane that loses pressurization at high altitude, in the middle of no and where. The first thing the captain has to do, obviously, is quickly get the plane down to a pressurized altitude (the O2 containers only last so long…). But then you have a plane running on one engine (assume Engine#1 can’t be restarted), at low altitude. The pressurization issue means you can’t climb back up high.

    As long as only one engine dies, being on an ETOPS jet means you have an exceedingly high chance of being just fine. But if you lose pressurization AND one engine…. it doesn’t give much glide room-for-error if the second engine subsequently also dies….

    Again, no idea if it is related or not to this event, but it got me thinking….

  13. can a disorented pilot get the a330 inverted(will the computer let it invert) but if the electronics have failed the pilot could invert then dive inverted at high speed into the ocean thinking the were climbing to a higher FL

  14. I do not believe that Airbii will let you invert the aircraft. I have no first hand knowledge, though.

    I would also suspect any pilot with that many flying hours would be able to correctly handle a loss of power, and fly correctly just on instruments. Indeed, there is usually a little “propeller” that can be deployed on airbuses to provide electronics to the cockpit in the event of a loss of electrical power. The incoming air (resulting from the plane moving along) forces the tiny prop to turn, which then generates the small amount of needed power.

  15. Adarsh – I’m curious about QF72 as well. The FAA and JAA issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive after that event. If there is a link, and AF had implemented the fix, it may have larger ramifications.

    Regardless, we can’t speculate until sufficient data is collected.

  16. Well, debris were found earlier today, Cranky.

    But this is a very odd scenerio… plane crashes usually do not occur during the cruising portion of the flight… 3 hours in is really surprising…

    Bless those poor souls.

  17. Thanks for the information about the other flights that were in the general vicinity & timeframe of the AF flight. I had been wondering if the Captain of this flight had the ability to get any ‘ride reports’ from planes ahead of him, and it appears as though he might have. If ATC sends you on a particular route or puts you at a certain flight level, these ‘ride reports’ can often cause the Captain to request a deviation; he’s up there and ATC isn’t.

  18. i agree catastrophic in flight failure during cruse is very unusual but if it is induced by the flight crew trying to correct a problem and inducing a more sever problem a electrical problem that the ram air turbine could not help would be a problem the flight crew could have been working with and the pilots not fully aware of the impending demise ntsb calls this situation (controlled flight into terrain) confused by the weather and other situations causing the pilots to fly the air craft into the sea i have flown through thunder storms in air craft that have few instruments to aid the pilot you have to keep your head on straight i hope the flight data recorder can be found

  19. God (or the baby Jesus) apparently wanted this to happen. Who are we to question the mysterious plans and actions of God and the baby Jesus?

  20. Despite all these one wonders why airlines chose to fly through such violent thunderstorms and not by-pass them? Why take the risk? Even if there is no risk, why they subject people who do not necessarily like roller-coasters to such an experience? Is being late for a few minutes or burning a little more fuel worth such a bad experience and risk amplification?

  21. John – It may be surprising, but it’s really at the pilot’s discretion. In general, pilots will try to avoid bad weather, but that’s not always the case. If a pilot is comfortable flying through the weather, then they can do it. It’s funny, because different airlines have different cultures. Northwest, for example, is known for flying around weather as much as possible. Some of those cowboys at Southwest, however, like to punch right through if it’s safe.

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind my flight taking an extra hour if it meant bypassing the worst stuff.

  22. CF – Your comments regarding flying through weather are not at all accurate.

    Northwest has a very good program that plots areas of turbulence. Some other major airlines subscribe to Northwest for this service and it is quite good. That is not the same thing as avoiding weather.

    No one intentionally enters convective cells unless it is an inadvertent penetration. Airborne weather radar does sometimes fail and airborne radar units vary in quality.

    Radar paints moisture, and though some will tell you it is not possible, there are convective cells that have low moisture content or for reasons not well understood do not paint.

    There is an old saying; “One peep is worth a thousand sweeps.” There are occasions when storms do not show up well or appear at all on radar and visual avoidance is the best method. When cells are embedded in weather the only avoidance tool available is radar and though the new multi-scan units and vertical profile radars are good they are not infallible.

    Though Southwest pilots are sometimes characterized as cowboys that is in most cases a wild overstatement.

    No one has intentionally flown through thunderstorm cells since the 1950s. There was a time when conventional wisdom held that turbulence alone could never damage a mental airframe. The USAF actually looked into it in the 50s and found that there were convective currents that could tear metal aircraft apart.

    No one who has ever flown through a cell wants to go back again. You can take my word on that one.

  23. dudjo – I should have been more clear with my comment. I never meant to imply that a pilot would fly into a convective cell on purpose at all. My only point was that some pilots (Southwest, in my example) will try to cut through a line (picking their way through and avoiding the cells) while other pilots (Northwest in my example) will choose to go around the line entirely. I apologize if my comment wasn’t clear.

  24. CF –

    I still think your position is inaccurate.

    Everyone will pick their way through a line if 1. there is adequate separation between cells to provide an upwind deviation, and/or 2. The line is too long to circumvent (or fuel starts to become an issue) and backtracking is no longer an option.

    Lines of convective activity can sometimes extend longer that 1000 miles and going around them is usually not an option. This is especially true if it’s an ocean system where weather coverage is inferior to continental coverage.

    I have never heard WN pilots going where others fear to tread.

    When you bring an airplane back with heavy hail damage the airline and the FAA take a keen interest in the weather where you flew and more importantly where you could have flown.

  25. dudjo – If there is adequate separation between cells, then yes, anyone will go through, but who determines if there’s adequate separation? The pilot has the ultimate authority. And of course these are broad stereotypes, but Northwest pilots are known to be more conservative in their approach while Southwest pilots are not. This doesn’t mean that it’s the same for every pilot in the group, and it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t change over time.

  26. Just a comment on the Southwest pilots going head first in a storm.

    Yesterday here in the Bay Area we had a heavy rainstorm and lightning. Southwest flight 2197 from Oakland to Burbank departed at 6:30am and was hit by lightning around the Salinis (Calif. near Monterey) area. The captain decided to return to Oakland where they have maintenance crews to check the plane out. There were no injuries and from preliminary reports the damage was minimal.

    A spokeswoman for WN said pilots are given weather reports before every flight so they can plan a route that avoids rough weather. But she also added that lightning strikes are difficult to predict.

    So here’s a question, if it wasn’t for the reports of the AF plane being in a storm and being hit by lightning, would the pilot have returned to Oakland to be on the safe side and easy passenger worries or would he had just gone on to Burbank if the AF event had not happen? If he thought there was danger he could have landed right there in Monterey and had to fly over San Jose to get back to Oakland. So he doesn’t land at the two closer airports and doesn’t continue on to Burbank. What was the motive for returning to Oakland?

    The plow ahead comment would suggest he go to Burbank to be on time in landing and then check the plane, the concerned pilot returned to Oakland but wasn’t worried enough to land at the airport right where he was or at San Jose where passengers could have been put on other flights.

    This pilot was no ‘cowboy’, but was he afraid of being another AF?

  27. One thing the news reports keeps bringing up is that, just before the plane’s disappearance, it broadcast some sort of technical information about electrical circuits shutting down. If planes can do that, why can’t they also broadcast information from the black boxes? Just a short squirt of the past minute or so of recorded flight information would be very helpful.

  28. David SF – I think it’s fairly standard procedure to get down if you’re hit by lightning. While it’s incredibly rare for it to bring down an airplane, it can cause damage and it should be checked out quickly. Since the flight originated in Oakland and it wasn’t far from Oakland, that was probably the best place to go back to, especially since that’s the largest Southwest operation in the Bay, and I believe, the site of a fair number of maintenance techs. I doubt this has anything to do with AF – it’s probably just routine. This stuff happens all the time. (I mean, airplanes getting hit by lightning – certainly not thunderstorms in coastal California in June!)

    Rural Rob – There is an incredibly large amount of data being recorded, especially on the flight data recorder. It takes a decent amount of bandwidth to transmit all that data, especially when it includes the voice recordings, I would think. Still, that would clearly be the best way to handle this, when it becomes feasible.

  29. The other thing that would be helpful is if, instead of just mounting these black boxes inside the plane where they get dragged down with the wreckage, mount them in some kind of watertight pod that is ejected when certain conditions are met, i.e. when a continuous “heartbeat” signal from the cockpit computers cease.

  30. Sorry I’m not an avaition specialist but I really enjoyed the interchange of thoughs on what must have been a terrifying few minutes on that plane, not too sure on the devine intervention or the alien black hole theories though! It is a very unusual accident and as such everybody is clutching at straws in order to get some idea of what could have happened and also possibly help nervous flyers who are about to jump on an A330. I cannot imagine what the families and friends are going through and spare a thought for the designers and technical people at Airbus who must be living in the dreaded shadow of a design flaw on this machine.

  31. Look it happend because desmond never push the button or cause jacob was killed..This mus of caused the plane to be send to the LOST ISLAND…so they all there and would have to stay there..cause we know they cant cum back unless they find a loophole……

  32. ITs rediculous that there is no radar, floating black boxes, automatic sensors that explain all possible scenarios of a possible accident, or at least 99% of them. its freaking 2009 guys…seriously we send people to the moon. i use eye scanner and finger print to get into my office, and do my banking…and somehow we lost a plane full of people bec it was out of radar range??? seriously? like really? no like seriously?

  33. Dear Sir,
    I am Dr.Ganesh from India. Air France A330 accident has done by terrorist. Because if any technical problem had happened, Pilot would have sent message to airport. Terrorist must have frightened and attacked pilot and all aircrews.
    Terrorist can easily hijack flights from all international airports. International airports worldwide have been doing 3 mistakes in security.
    In February, I already sent my research on “Flight hijack by terrorist-new methods” to all International airports. Though I sent my 3 years research, all airports neglected my research. I got no reply from all airports.
    Terrorist can enter into the flight with weapons easily. I have invented those easy methods. By those easy methods terrorist will hijack flights frequently in future like Air France 330. I am ready to submit my research “Flight hijack by terrorist-new methods”. If airports wish to prevent flights and save many lives, they can contact me.

    Friendly yours,

  34. Hello Everyone, I am from Pakistan and would like to convey to our French brothers and sisters our deepest condolence for this great tragedy. We are all one human family and your sorrow is our sorrow too. May God give healing strength to us all, Amen.

  35. i think it will be somthing to do with the pitot tubes and rudder . its happend before, and not just the once.

  36. My condolences to all the familys involved aswell. I was thinking, a cause could be a short circuit occuring and the airspeed indicator malfunctioning and showing the wrong speed, similar to a 757 crash. This could cause the pilots to beleive they are goin too fast however are just above stalling speed. Therefore they throttle back, sending the A330 into a deadly stall causing it to spiral towards the ocean. Just a though, haha.

    Well… Good luck to those on the investigation team.

  37. Its interesting that the tail fin came off in one piece. Its reminds me of the Amercan Airlines A330 crash in Queens new York. We learned from that accident that the amount of travel on the rudder on an A330 is restricted as speed builds up. We also know that if you give the rudder full deflection at high speed it will most likely be torn off the aircraft. In the Queens Accident, they hit heavy wake turbulance and used full rudder to try and correct it. As they hadn’t yet passed the speed threshold where rudder travel would have been restricted, the rudder fully deflected and was torn off the aircraft .

    If , and I know its a big if, the air speed indicator was iced up and telling the Air France jet’s computer that they were travelling slower than they were and indeed slower than the speed at which the computer would automatically restrict the rudder travel, then any attempt to control the aircraft using the rudder in the turbulent air we know they were travelling in, could easily have resulted in the tail being torn off and the subsequent break up of the aircraft

  38. Well here we are two weeks after the crash and still none the wiser on what may have happened. I have to say Michael Mc and Phil H have a point on the rudder, it’s the first thing that I thought about even before they found it. As for terrorists I just don’t believe it.The point of terrorism is to terrorize the masses, nobody has claimed responsibility and they would always try for maximum impact and blowing up an aircraft in the middle of nowhere does not make sense. Lets hope they find the flight recorders and put all the wild speculation to bed.

  39. What I find amazing is the point of CFs entry was to say: Keep the speculation down, these things need to be investigated and we’ll find out once the investigators have had time to work through what happened. Then a bunch of people have gone and theorized why this plane crashed..

    Talk about missing the point.

    At this point we don’t know much more, a plane has crashed, and people have died. May they rest in peace.

  40. just saw the two photos that were taken from inside the plane as it broke up. you can clearly see the tail break off and a passenger being sucked out. what amazing courage of the passenger that took the photos. life is precious. RIP

  41. Their faces are clearly etched into my memory now. In away I wish I never saw the photos. To Paulo G Muller’s daughters, your father was indeed couragous (Paulo G Muller had taken the photos on this camera – memory stick survived)

  42. Those photos supposedly taken by Paolo G Muller were a hoax. They were also published 3 years ago after another plane crash and it has been confirmed they were taken as part of a TV drama about a plane crash

  43. It is indeed a tragic accident to have taken place. However we all learn from such incidents and I do hope that this incident serves as a wake up call to all airlines & aircraft manufacturers worldwide to put a greater emphasis on safety in their scheme of things. I just hope that the investigations proceed in a smooth manner and a conclusion as to the cause of the crash is found so that corrective steps can be taken to ensure that human life is not lost in this manner due to either technical failures or human error.
    May the souls of all those that perished rest in peace. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to all their loved ones.

  44. Dudes, apparently when AF447 failed to report entry into Dakar Control’s airspace, The Senegalese did NOTHING to contact them and the flight was only reported when it failed to contact MADRID six hours later. Wreckage indicates the plane belly-landed in one piece and most of the passengers could have survived. Sounds like the sharks had a six hour feast when the Brazilian Air Force probably could have been dropping them life rafts within 30 minutes, or passing merchant ships diverted for rescue. We used to have the same problem with Manila Control flying over the South China Sea. Call them and call them and they never answer. I get scared whenever I fly close to a 3rd world country.

  45. Dr. Ganesh – Your comments lack thought and, while meant to scare, actually do little to provoke. Fact is, a U.S.-based hijacking will never happen again due to two reasons – 1) improved security and 2) loss of the element of surprise. Everyone has an eye out for it now.

    And by the way, I’m ready to die if you are.

  46. Dr. Ganesh – One more thing. Do you suppose that the reason nobody responded is because you didn’t use proper grammar?

  47. The crash happened because of a terrorist attack……………..that is terrible…….i feel very sorry for the families that had their children there……

  48. Likely cause is 100 mph winds and storm. Planes are tough but cannot handle those conditions for very long.

    1. I can’t imagine that I need to respond to this, but for those who are concerned, this is completely absurd. Martin, if you have proof, post it. If not, then please stop spreading crazy rumors.

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