August 2012

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Few clues as Air France Flight 447 investigation begins

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Word this morning of the tragic disappearance and presumed crash of Air France Flight 447 somewhere off the Northeastern coast of Brazil has the entire planet asking a lot of questions with few available answers. With so little information available, including the whereabouts of the aircraft, those desperately seeking information - the airline, the manufacturer, the traveling public, the news media and most importantly the friends and families of those on board - are left only to speculate what may have happened to the 228 souls on-board.

The Airbus A330-203 (F-GZCP), which went missing about 3.5 hrs after its departure from Rio De Janeiro enroute to Paris, was manufactured in 2005 with its first flight on February 25th followed by delivery on April 4th of that same year. The aircraft was the 660th A330 built by Airbus and was deployed on flights from Paris to cities like Bangalore, Philadelphia, Cairo, New York and Dubai.

In June 2005, F-GZCP (40J/179Y), powered by two General Electric CF6-80E1A3 engines, was responsible for inaugurating Air France's transatlantic service between Paris and Detroit.

Flight reports:

At 22:33 Brasilia local time, says the ministry, the aircraft made final radio contact with the eastern Brazilian Cindacta-3 Atlantic area control centre at Recife, one of four en route centres that oversee Brazilian airspace.

The aircraft contacted Cindacta-3 at the INTOL waypoint, some 350nm (565km) from Natal, a city on the Brazilian coast. It indicated that it would enter Dakar airspace, Senegal, at the TASIL waypoint - about 663nm (1,228km) from Natal just under 50min later, at 23:20 Brasilia time.

AF447 left Cindacta-3 radar surveillance from the island of Fernando de Noronha, at 22:48. At this time it was cruising at 35,000ft at 453kt, says the defence ministry, with indications that the flight was "normal".

The aircraft did not contact air traffic control around the time of the expected transit of TASIL.

The ministry says that Air France has informed Cindacta-3 that, about 54nm (100km) from TASIL the flight transmitted a technical message concerning loss of pressurisation and an electrical failure.

The early indications point to some type of weather event that caused the aircraft to send a ACARS message signaling an electrical circuit failure around the time it hit turbulence during its Atlantic crossing. Air France says that, as of now, no wreckage has been located.

With far more questions than answers, everything falls into the category of speculation, though the accident - without definitive clues has the potential to reopen long standing debates about fly-by-wire controls, airliner lightning strike protection, ADIRUs and ETOPS even after millions of hours of safe in-service operation of these technologies.

Flight's Operations/Safety Editor David Learmount captured the event this way:

An event like this is the kind the aviation world hoped it would not see again, because it involves a world class carrier flying the latest generation of airliner, and it occurred en route, not during take-off or landing in difficult weather. It's a chilling reminder that nothing is impossible, however unthinkable.

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