05.24.11

The Hidden Secrets of the Flight 447 Crash

A select group of aviation experts know what took down Air France Flight 447, killing 228 people—so why doesn’t the public know already? Clive Irving reports on the latest analysis and says the final report is expected next month.

It’s likely that a handful of aviation experts from Europe and the U.S. already know in outline what caused Air France Flight 447 to vanish over the south Atlantic two years ago. They have been analyzing data from the flight recorders salvaged three weeks ago from the wreck two and a half miles below the surface of the Sargasso Sea.

This is the most urgently sought information in the world of aviation—and by everybody involved in airline safety.

Keeping the findings secret until a complete report is written is proving stressful for the French accident investigation agency, the BEA.

It is not just the need to be sure that the crash was not caused by a failure still lying dormant in the design that, if not revealed, could doom another Airbus A330, the widely used airliner involved.

The investigators are being circled by some powerful interests that could find themselves subject to huge liability damages and, under French law, criminal charges.

Both pilots knew that they were heading through a particularly turbulent storm system.

The two principal parties, Air France and Airbus, have already been forced to say that they are not trying to rubbish the other ahead of the BEA report, as a result of a story in the French paper Le Figaro which alleged that Airbus would be exonerated and, by implication, blame would fall on the Air France pilots.

Le Figaro was scolded in a rare outburst from the usually tight-lipped BEA. The story was, said the BEA, “sensationalist publication of non-validated information,” and added, “any information that comes from another source is null and void if it has not been validated by the BEA.”

Reports by the BEA are published in both French and English. Like all accident investigations the world over, they speak in a carefully crafted language combining technical detail, a lot of it complex, finely shaded commentary and overt lawyer-speak.

What is happening now is the analysis—and interpretation—of thousands of bits of data that will describe the final dramatic minutes in the life of Flight 447, a scenario in which each second has something to reveal.

Until the BEA is satisfied that all of this can be incorporated in a narrative ready for prime time, they disparage any speculation.

That, however, did not inhibit the German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, alleging this week that “sources close to the investigative team have revealed that the recordings indicate that Marc Dubois, the aircraft’s 58-year-old pilot, was not in the cockpit at the time the trouble began.”

In fact, you don’t need to have heard what has been revealed on the cockpit voice recorders to have deduced that Dubois was not on the flight deck. His body was among those recovered among floating debris soon after the crash. The body of the first officer, who was probably flying the A330 at the time, has not been recovered.

It’s not unusual for a captain, once an airplane reaches cruise height, to go into the cabin to chat with first-class passengers. Normally the first officer flies the airplane for most of the time. What makes it strange in this case is that both pilots knew that they were heading through a particularly turbulent storm system.

In order to protect the French investigation from insinuations of bias, the team analyzing the data in Paris includes an investigator from the NTSB in the U.S., and investigators from Germany, Britain, and Brazil—as well as, significantly “the French judicial police and a court expert.”

Sources I have spoken to in Paris believe that the report will be published toward the end of June, and that it will be definitive.

The timing is itself likely to prove highly sensitive: The aviation industry’s major selling showcase, the Paris Air Show, opens June 20. Neither Airbus nor the companies who supply them with flight-critical systems, like Honeywell of the U.S. and Thales of France, want to be implicated in the loss of Flight 447. The Airbus A330 continues to be a bestseller.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation—find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.