Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Support PBS Shop PBS Search PBS
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the loss of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean, and investigators are no closer to resolving the mystery of why the plane crashed. The flight, from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, disappeared on June 1, 2009 after entering a zone of severe thunderstorms, killing all 228 people on board.

AP10053106796.jpgLast week, the French Bureau of Accident Inquiry, known by its French acronym BEA, called off its third attempt to locate the plane's flight recorders. (Soon after the accident, searchers did recover 50 bodies as well as scattered pieces of the plane, including part of the tail section seen here.) The BEA, which has issued two draft reports about the accident but has drawn no conclusions as to the cause, has not said whether it will conduct a fourth search.

What little is known comes from automated messages that the plane sent to Air France just before the plane vanished. The so-called pitot tubes, external ports that measure airspeed, apparently failed by becoming clogged with ice or water. The aircraft's autopilot, which needs to know the airspeed to function properly, switched off. The plane may then have gone into a stall, from which the pilots were unable to recover.

The lack of data beyond the automated messages, and the failure to find the "black boxes" that might provide those data, has renewed calls for developing ways to transmit vital flight data to the ground in real time. The costs are prohibitive, but so are searches -- the BEA hunt so far has cost 20 million euros, reports the London Times. And pinning down the cause of a crash is the only way to ensure that a similar failure doesn't occur in the future -- something that everyone who flies is keenly interested in.

NOVA is now working on a documentary about the Air France crash and investigation. The program will tentatively air this fall.

"The job of our film is to try, by piecing together the known evidence, to come up with some conclusions and a credible explanation of what could have happened," says executive producer Julian Ware. "But obviously we can only be certain if they find the black boxes."

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.

"When these automated systems fail, suddenly pilots go from a low-task saturation to an enormous overload task saturation, and they don't have the flying hours now to deal with the situation," Ware says. Nor do they necessarily know how to cope with a stall. "It's no reflection on the pilots," Ware says; it's just that practicing recovery from a stall is not something pilots can train on in commercial flight simulators, which cannot reproduce stalls because of the extreme forces involved.

Even if a fourth search for the black boxes is launched, finding them is a long shot, Ware says, and not just because their electronic pinging ceased long ago. The plane went down over an undersea mountain range, and the search area covers hundreds of square miles. Even when the BEA briefly narrowed its search field in early May, one expert said it was "like looking for two shoe boxes in an area the size of Paris."

Nevertheless, families of some of the victims continue to press for a fourth search. "Our grief and our distress remain constant," Jean-Baptiste Audousset, president of a French Flight 447 families' association, said yesterday at a news conference in Paris. "The trauma is even more terrible because we still do not know how their last moments of life were spent."

Photo credit: AP Photo/Brazil's Air Force

User Comments:

When I think of what those poor passengers would go through in their last minutes on this earth it makes me want to be sick. May their God be with them. John.

do these black box have GPS tracker..if not dot know how prudent will it be to have such a technology ! May god give strength to the families of the people on board ! PK

The documentary/film sounds on likely cause sounds like a good idea.

BBC in the UK aired a documentary on Sunday night (5/31/10) entitled "Lost: The mystery of flight 447" that address many of the issues you list above.

gps doesn't work inside, so how the **** is it going to work underwater?

maybe a flotation device, or something would be better.

huge entire planes just disappear?, planes filled with hundreds of passengers? ... and we accept that because it would cost an extra thirty cents per passenger per flight to remedy this??

it's time to spend a few bucks and stop this total nonsense.

we need extra rugged, self-powered, flotational, triple-redundant and far longer-pinging GPS devices with ***-end data loggers that 'blow' themselves free any time a 'below than minimal' altitude ( a certain-crash altitude) is reached by the aircraft and that transmit in the giga band. the last five or ten seconds of flight recording data to the self jettisoning data loggers could be dispensed with without losing the general reconstruction picture.

throughout flights the devices should also periodically( once a minute) 'squirt' their recorded streams of stored data and locational-position in a compressed format on dedicated radio frequency bands receivable world-wide.

aircraft should also have releasing-divots that contain colored dye that would open and activate under water-pressure. additionally all commercial aircraft should have serious long life mechanical pingers ( six month, compressed gas life-spans with hard, clockwork pings every ten minutes or so) attached to several places on their air frames.

additionally every commercial aircraft frame should have a powerful, high frequency locator transponder that continuously pulse signals for purposes of triangulation by rescue parties.

i'm not an engineer but there have got to be many ways to reliably find an air frame that's gone missing in a mountain range or an ocean.

Post a comment:

Peter Tyson

Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA Online, which he joined in 1998. For “Inquiry,” an occasional column he writes for the website, he has written about everything from whether humans are still evolving (yes and no), to whether there’s an opposite to absolute zero (no one knows). A science writer for longer than some of the youngest staff at NOVA have been alive, Tyson previously worked at Omni, Earthwatch, and Technology Review magazines. He is the author of The Eighth Continent, a book about Madagascar, and four other books, including a biography of Groucho Marx for young adults. He is not related to Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of NOVA scienceNOW, or to Tyson Chicken.

NOVApbs Twitter Feed

    Other posts by this Contributor

    Corporate funding provided by