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Thursday 4 June 2009

Flight to Know

Flying is, usually, an uneventful way to travel. It can also be both boring and frustrating, with delays and more and more “security” now part of the scenery. Very occasionally there is an accident. Some are survivable, some not: anything that occurs at cruising altitude tends to the latter. In each case, the work of accident investigators teases out the causes, providing the reassurance that the industry learns from the event, making recurrence less likely.

This week there has been another accident: Air France flight 447, bound from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, failed to make an expected radio contact with Senegalese air traffic control, and today’s report on the BBC website details the finding of debris and a large fuel slick on the Atlantic Ocean. The weather in the area at the time was poor, and the radar shows some hefty thunderstorms. The search for the aircraft’s flight recorders continues.

There have been transatlantic flights ending in apparent mystery in the recent past, but the reality has always come through following rigorous investigation. TWA 800, a Boeing 747 also en route for Paris, was the subject of all manner of conspiracy theories, including a spurious punt at Greek airport security (the aircraft had previously flown into North America from Athens) before the crash was traced to the explosive mixture of elderly wiring and fuel vapour in an otherwise empty centre tank.

The initial mystery of Swissair 111, an MD-11 that crashed soon after leaving New York’s JFK, was revealed to be a fire that had started in the plane’s unique on board entertainment system. And EgyptAir 990, a Boeing 767 bound for Cairo, turned out to have been downed by what appeared to be a deliberate act by a relief pilot, a conclusion which did not endear the US investigators to many Egyptians. The findings were sometimes grim. But having the causes discovered, and knowing that steps would be taken to prevent further losses, gave comfort to those who trust their lives to airlines on a more or less regular basis.

Thus the problem with AF447: the flight’s data recorders have not been found, and the possibility has been raised that they may never be, given the depth of the ocean in the area where the plane was lost. But we need to know. The aircraft concerned, an Airbus 330, is in service all over the world – many charter carriers out of the UK use them to ferry holidaymakers.

So those recorders must be found. Unless anyone can solve the mystery of AF447 any other way.

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