The flight that disappears is one of oldest mysteries in aviation. (Think Amelia Earhart.) But, today, they are one of the rarest. Hundreds of airliners cross the Atlantic every day with the sureness of shuttle bus. So the vanishing of an Air France A330 on a flight over the South Atlantic from Rio to Paris is a shock.
There is no radar coverage over large stretches of the oceans. Contact with flights beyond the radar depends on regular radio reports and signals sent from the airplane’s transponder, its electronic identifier.
When contact is suddenly lost with a flight, as in this case, it poses a huge challenge, immediate and long-term, in establishing what may have happened.
Two very different precedents exist.
On September 2, 1998, a Swissair McDonnell Douglas MD-11, flying from JFK to Geneva, crashed into the Atlantic southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia. A small fire that began in wiring above the cockpit filled the cabin with smoke. The pilots were in contact with Canadian air-traffic controllers and tried to make it to Halifax, but were overcome by smoke before they could. All 229 people on board were lost. Examination of the wreckage established the cause, and changes were made to the standards governing wiring.
On June 20, 1985, an Air India Boeing 747 flying from Toronto to London suddenly disappeared in the Atlantic near the Irish coast—in this case, as in the Swissair flight, the airplane was within radar range and the area in which the flight went down was quickly established. In that case, the cause was a suitcase bomb and 329 people died. Sectarian Indian terrorists were blamed, but a long investigation left their identity uncertain.
These two extremes, an act of terrorism and a mechanical failure, the latter with a precise record of cause, were discrete events and implied no larger risks to crossing oceans. In today’s accident, early reports indicate that the airplane disappeared after leaving Brazilian radar coverage and reaching the range of radar in the Cape Verde islands off the western African coast. If so, its fate could be very hard to establish.
Reports of the Air France A330 being hit by a severe electrical storm are not in themselves ominous. These storms are a familiar hazard. In a plane with the exemplary record of the A330, lightning strikes should not be critical. What does seem strange is the apparent suddenness of the event. The hope now is that, because the flight path over the Atlantic is known, searchers will find floating wreckage, and that that wreckage will provide an answer.
Clive Irving is senior consulting editor of Condé Nast Traveler.