Magazine

What Happened to Air France Flight 447?

Sylvain Pascaud

The Alucia and a Remus 6000, an unmanned reconnaissance submarine, at the last-known position of Flight 447. The sub can navigate rugged terrain miles beneath the ocean's surface and bring back thousands of photographs of underwater wrecks.

Late on the morning of April 3, the expedition ship Alucia rocked violently on the South Atlantic Ocean in the middle of a squall. On the aft deck, the crew huddled together in rain slickers and gazed across the heaving seas to a yellow blur on the horizon. This was an unmanned reconnaissance submarine carrying 15,000 photographs that they were nearly desperate to see. But it had buoyed to the surface just as the squall sprang up, and with 30-knot winds and four-foot swells that splashed over the stern, it was too dangerous to retrieve the sub. So they watched and waited.

Multimedia
Reuters

A sonar image of the wreckage area of Air France Flight 447 that was released by French air-crash investigators on April 4.

For eight days, the Alucia had been trolling the ocean near a spot known as the L.K.P., or the Last Known Position of Flight 447, the Air France jet that vanished in June 2009, about halfway between South America and Africa. In the nearly two years since, three other search teams went looking for the wreckage, but this was the Alucia’s first try. The ship carried three Remus 6000 submarines, some of the most advanced underwater search vehicles on earth, which swept the seafloor in 20-hour runs, then surfaced to deliver sonar imagery to the Alucia’s scientific team, who pored over the data in 12-hour shifts around the clock. So far, they had not found the plane, but the day before, one scientist pointed at something unusual on the monitor and said, “What about this?” And ever since, the air on the Alucia was charged.

Everyone knew the stakes. This wasn’t a scan of the Sargasso Sea or a study of salinity samples. The families of 228 passengers were restless for results. The search had already taken two years and cost more than $25 million. Another $12 million was committed to the Alucia this year, but French investigators had quietly decided that this year would be the last. If the Alucia did not find the plane, no one ever would.

As expedition leader, Michael Purcell was equal parts colleague and boss, with a raspy voice and a sonic laugh and a playful sarcasm, but he knew the Remus subs as well as anyone. Looking at the fuzzy mark on the monitor, he knew they had found something unnatural. It was too long and straight to be geologic. It was unlike anything else on the seafloor. On the other hand, if it wasn’t Flight 447, Purcell knew the disappointment would be palpable. As he prepared the photographic sub to return to the bottom for an 18-hour mission, Purcell whispered to another scientist, “I’m 95 percent sure that’s it, but man, if it’s not, it’s going to be a long two and a half months.” The sub went down at 9:45 p.m. At 2 a.m., Purcell was still awake in his cabin. He picked up his journal. “Tired but not sleepy,” he wrote. “May have found the plane today. Everyone is on edge.”

Four hours later, Purcell was up with the sun, and by late morning he was on deck with the crew, watching the Remus bob in the distance. A little after 1 p.m., they pulled the sub onboard and attached two thick cables to upload its data into the computers in the mission-control room. They drew the curtains around the room, so nonscientific crew members could not see in, and yanked the satellite uplink offline, so no one could leak the news. Then they crowded around the computer monitor as the first images of Flight 447 came onscreen: engines, landing gear and sections of fuselage, all unmistakably vivid on the ocean floor. But as they turned the satellite back on and began sending the first photos to air-crash investigators in France, the deeper implications of their discovery were just beginning to surface.

The vanishing of Flight 447 was easy to bend into myth. No other passenger jet in modern history had disappeared so completely — without a Mayday call or a witness or even a trace on radar. The airplane itself, an Airbus A330, was considered to be among the safest. It was equipped with the automated fly-by-wire system, which is designed to reduce human error by letting computers control many aspects of the flight. And when, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean, Flight 447 seemed to disappear from the sky, it was tempting to deliver a tidy narrative about the hubris of building a self-flying airplane, Icarus falling from the sky. Or maybe Flight 447 was the Titanic, an uncrashable ship at the bottom of the sea.

Wil S. Hylton (wilshylton@gmail.com) is a contributing writer for the magazine. Editor: Joel Lovell (j.lovell-MagGroup@nytimes.com).

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 8, 2011

The cover article this weekend, on Page 38, about the disappearance of Air France Flight 447 in 2009, makes several references to unrecovered data cylinders from the plane’s black boxes. On May 1, after the article went to press, the cylinders were found on the floor of the South Atlantic Ocean and are expected to be analyzed in the coming week.

Get Free E-mail Alerts on These Topics