News came Sunday that 17 bodies from Air France flight 447 were found roughly 400 miles northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil’s northern coast. Friday French officials concluded that “wreckage” found by Brazilian authorities in the ocean and an observed 12-mile long oil slick were not in fact from the Air France Airbus A330 that was lost last Sunday with all 228 aboard. Amid reports of the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) data, which were reportedly sent from the aircraft in its final four minutes, Airbus Friday urged operators to review procedures for flying while receiving conflicting or “incoherent” air data information on the flight deck. Also Friday, an Air France memo obtained by the Associated Press states that pitot tubes are being replaced on the airline’s jets. This has led to increased speculation from mainstream media sources that the A330 had entered turbulent air at an improper speed while operating in a confined stall/overspeed performance regime — at 35,000 feet, roughly 5,000 feet from its service ceiling. While speculation continues, so too do the effects of debris earlier thought to be wreckage, which significantly impacted the search, stretching limited first response resources and widening the search area by 300 miles. With the debris and oil slick set aside, developing theories that the aircraft impacted the water without suffering a pre-impact explosion or substantial fire are no longer so readily supported and reports from an Air Comet flight out of Lima for Lisbon may attract significant interest.
Pilots of the Air Comet flight, which flew near AF 447 in a similar time frame, reported seeing an intense white flash in the distance followed by descending light that either broke up into six segments or disappeared in six seconds. The last part of the sentence is indicative of a prevailing problem that confronts the early phase of the investigation, information sharing and its dissemination — distance, culture and translation. The Air Comet pilots are Spanish, the investigative agencies are largely French, the first search teams are Brazilian and much of the world is reading reports that have been translated at least once into English.
At this time, there is consensus that communications were sent by the crew that it was entering a band of thunderstorms. Meteorologists familiar with the region’s aviation and forecasting suggest the storms were a type common in the area and not considered especially dangerous for aircraft. Meteorologist Tim Vasquez, who has studied the scenario and detailed at length his conclusions of the potential weather scenario facing Air France 447, went so far as to say that based on the limited available data, “I would have been comfortable with them continuing the flight.” As it was, ten minutes after the crew’s message, according to an unnamed source cited by various news agencies, the aircraft began sending automated messages that first indicated the autopilot had disengaged and a main computer system had switched to alternate power. Then, said the source, stabilization controls were damaged (details unclear), air data was compromised and an alarm sounded in the cockpit. Final messages indicated loss of pressurization and massive electrical failure. The FDR and CVR should send signals for 30 days. Those signals are difficult to locate in vast areas of deep water. They can be distorted, deflected and possibly obstructed by differential temperatures in deep waters and undersea terrain. The sea floor in the area of the crash may extend beyond 20,000 feet.