At the beginning of April a team of scientists operating a remote-controlled submarine found the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which disappeared on June 1, 2009 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing the 228 people on board. They found wreckage, bodies, and flight data recorders, raising the pilots' voice recorder -- the "black box"-- just yesterday.
That discovery provided a neat peg for a New York Times Magazine story that freelance writer Wil S. Hylton must have been working on for weeks (or months) before its publication today. It's about 8,000 words long, and requires a lot of time sitting at the computer to read. However, it's a very detailed account of a very complicated ongoing story, so if you want to sound like you know what you're talking about when you bring it up over dinner tonight, but don't want to spend the better part of an hour reading it, we've summarized and extracted the salient points. If you have the time, we strongly recommend you go see the full thing, which is pretty fascinating.
The discovery and the wreckage There have been a few missions to the southern Atlantic to try to locate the main wreckage from the flight, but aside from debris and bodies found on the surface shortly after its disappearance, nothing of substance had been found until April 3, when scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanagraphic Institute (the same folks who found the Titanic), took one final trip to the plane's last known location. They used super-advanced submersibles and sonar to finally find wreckage, bodies, and the plane's black box and data recorder. "When I asked Michel Guerard, a vice president at Airbus, how Woods Hole was selected to lead the search, he shrugged and said, “Because no one else in the world can do it," Hylton wrote. He later described the underwater scene in grim detail:
On the [research ship] Alucia this spring, as Woods Hole scientists scanned the first photos of Flight 447, they saw more than just landing gear, engines and wings. They also saw the bodies of at least 50 passengers sprawled across an abyssal plain at the base of the mountains. As they continued searching the area, they found a section of damaged fuselage not far away, large enough to contain more passengers.
The theory of how it crashed: "Pilots call it the coffin corner" The plane disappeared as it reached the middle of its journey, a point known as Tasil Point, where it would pass out of radio and radar contact with Rio and pick up with Senegal. There, it flew into a "massive cluster of roiling clouds" that other planes were avoiding. Investigators think the crash may have to do with the weather's effect on small exterior sensors known as pitot probes, which detect airspeed.
... during the period of manual control, the margin of error is thin. For a passenger jet like the A330, the ideal cruising speed is about 560 miles per hour. If you go much faster, the center of lift moves back on the wing, pushing the nose down and increasing velocity, until you soon approach the speed of sound. At that point, shockwaves develop on the wings, interrupting the flow of air and reducing lift. The nose of the plane then gets forced into a dive that the pilot may not be able to pull out of. Then again, if you go too slow, the airplane stalls and falls. A plane must maintain a minimum speed to generate lift, and the higher it travels, the faster it must go. At 35,000 feet, the gap between too fast and too slow narrows ever closer. Pilots call it coffin corner.
Air France had been in the process of upgrading the pitot probes on its A330s, but it hadn't yet gotten the new ones on the plane that crashed.
The investigation Questions have arisen about why it took nearly 11 hours for a response team to be sent to Tasil point after AFF 47 lost radio contact. But because "the investigation is not conducted in such a way as to apportion blame," as two reports on the matter have said, it's hard to say why the delay occurred. This does not sit well with many investigators nor, obviously, the victims' families. "Many of them express a sense of frustration," Hylton writes, and some have "come to regard [COO Alain] Bassil and the other executives at Air France and Airbus as a cast of corporate villains." Some even allege a cover-up by Air France and its investigator (and chief investigator) the French government. "They don’t want to disclose problems with the fly-by-wire system," said Maarten Van Sluys, who lost his sister in the crash.
The bodies If the investigation has been tinged with politics, the process of identifying the 50 bodies found after the crash and performing autopsies was a presidential election. The Brazilian medical examiner who oversaw that process said France had asked to send an observer but instead sent a team of 20 to perform its own autopsies. "We couldn’t allow that. So I allowed one person from Interpol to be in the autopsy room and one person from the French government. Of course, this became a diplomatic issue," said the examiner, Dr. Francisco Sarmento. But what Sarmento found was that many of the injuries supported a theory that the plane had not come apart or blown up before it hit the water.
“We didn’t find anybody burned.” He leaned forward in his seat and wrapped his arms around his knees. “They were like this,” he said, holding the crash position and looking into my eyes. Then he sat up quickly and held his hand flat above the table. “When they hit,” he said, slamming it down, “fractures. I believe the pilot tried to land in the water. This is consistent with the fractures. But when the bodies arrived, the lungs were already in a state of decomposition. We didn’t have conditions to see if anyone drowned.”
With more bodies on the bottom of the ocean, the next (and still unanswered) question is whether to raise them, and what information they might yield. On one hand, they may reveal important clues. On the other, they may disintegrate, which would not be an exercise in resting in peace.