Mood Shifts to Hope in Search for Missing Air France A330

 - April 9, 2010, 6:08 AM
Although the BEA’s early focus centered on the potential of malfunctioning pitot tubes in the Airbus A330-200 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, authorities likely will never arrive at a definitive cause without data from the flight recorders. (copyright Airbus)

BEA investigators, who admit to having experienced a high level of stress in their effort to understand how Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, now hang their hopes on an array of machines and experts that reached the search area in the middle of the ocean between Brazil and Africa on April 2.

Chief investigator Alain Bouillard did not hide the fact, when presenting an interim report in December, that determining a cause for the fatal accident would prove “very complicated” without finding the Airbus A330-200’s wreckage and flight recorders. Since then, however, the mood has turned upbeat. The French-led team, which has hired hardware and skills from several countries, believes it has a “great chance,” as BEA director Jean-Paul Troadec put it, to find the wreckage. The search area in this third effort covers about 770 square miles, about one-tenth the size of the previous search area.

Oceanographers studied local drift and luck assisted them: fishermen had laid buoys at the time of the crash, in the same area, lending valuable help in computing a new search area. The effort has faced some administrative delays, however, associated with the U.S. Navy’s contribution of one trailing sonar and one remotely operated vehicle (ROV). In addition, three torpedo-shaped autonomous vehicles carry sonars. Geologists will help read the sonar images of the hilly seabed in the search area. The BEA estimates the team will cover the entire area in two weeks.

The search team will use the two ROVs to confirm whether something discovered on the seabed is actually the hoped-for wreckage. The ROVs also feature manipulators, arms that can seize objects or use tools. Just before launching this third phase of research from Recife, Brazil, Troadec emphasized that the pieces of hardware aboard the two ships are “redundant and complementary.” For example, each autonomous sonar has a narrower scope but greater precision than the trailing one.

All 228 occupants of Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris died in the crash. The BEA’s early focus centered on the airplane’s pitot tubes, suspected of malfunctioning and indicating a wrong airspeed. Bouillard, however, has long insisted that other factors must also have contributed to the catastrophe.

Despite his optimism, Bouillard will now need luck. Past experience shows that data can be retrieved from flight recorders after weeks spent in water, he said. This time, Flight 447’s “black boxes” will have been submerged for 10 months at least.