Jun 8, 2009
The disappearance of the Air France plane flying between Rio and Paris cost the lives of more than two hundred passengers and 12 crew members. It was the worst airplane accident in the history of Air France.
The directors of Air France quickly announced its Airbus 330 was very new, that it had just gone through maintenance checks, and that there was a very experienced pilot in charge – and all this they quickly documented. But then Air France went on to float the idea that the plane had been struck by lightning during a violent tropical storm.
Perhaps. But each year, thousands of airplanes are hit by lightning without such a disastrous result. Experienced pilots know that they have to go around violent atmospheric disturbances, like those commonly encountered going across the oceans at the equator.
Something more was involved. Now it seems that an air speed sensor malfunctioned. It has been known since 2001 that these sensors, under certain conditions, can get blocked by ice at high altitudes, failing to measure air speed – which can be deadly under certain difficult circumstances, like a severe storm. In the case of this flight between Rio and Paris, no less than 14 warning messages about sensor problems were recorded during the last four minutes of its flight!
In any case, aviation authorities had already recommended that Airbus make certain costly modifications. Those modifications had not been done on this plane. Airbus is now blaming Air France for not doing them, and Air France is blaming Airbus.
Furthermore, there is the whole issue of how well planes like this Airbus 330 can withstand the pounding force of tropical storms as they do go near them – which could be particularly problematic if the speed was wrong.
An internet site, EuroCockpit, maintained by volunteers working in the aviation industry, issued the following warning about such problems: “The safety standards, which include the breaking points of the wings, have not changed despite the growing size of aircraft bodies. The use of composite materials, whose resistance is calculated to barely meet certification standards, is dictated by the concern for ‘economic performance,’ that is, to economize on weight and thus save fuel.”
In other words, caught in high winds – particularly if the speed of the plane is affected – a plane could fall apart.
All of this is known. But airlines, like aviation companies, cut closer and closer to the margin of safety in the chase after profit.
This time, it seems they may have cut too far.