On last night’s loss of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean, it’s simply too early to speculate on what might have happened. If the aircraft is never found, speculation might be all we’ll ever get.
It took more than a year to find Steve Fossett’s crash site, even though searchers had the area narrowed down to a couple of hundred square miles, and didn’t have to worry about the wreckage sinking out of sight. Thousands of crashed aircraft have never been found.
When I flew fighters in Alaska, I’d often see aircraft wreckage in mountain passes. It’s not always feasible to remove wreckage from crash sites, particularly in mountainous terrain. The FAA would helicopter workers to crash sites to spray international orange paint on the visible parts of aircraft wreckage. The orange paint meant that the crash site was known and recorded, so that people wouldn’t keep reporting the same old crashes over and over.
We lost an Elmendorf F-15 one Friday morning in 1985. We knew approximately where it had crashed, within a hundred or so square miles, but we didn’t find it until Monday afternoon. I was on the board that investigated that crash, and during the investigation uncovered a report on a previous fighter loss that had occurred in 1978 at almost exactly the same bearing and distance from Elmendorf. That aircraft, an F-4E with two crewmen aboard, was never found. And these were on land, not at sea.
A friend of mine was flying formation with another F-4E over the North Sea when his wingman flew into the water. My friend and his backseater had glanced away momentarily but saw the splash out of the corners of their eyes, and immediately marked the crash location as they set up a search and rescue cap. Even though the crash position was positively known, even though the North Sea off the coast of Holland is shallow, the F-4E and its aircrew has never been found. During my time at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, we lost two F-15s at sea; once again, though both crash locations were known, neither aircraft was ever found. The ocean is large, and we are small.
Who knows, by the time I click “publish,” the Air France wreckage may have been found. Maybe an ELT went off on impact with the water, and SARSAT recorded the location. Maybe the US Navy’s SOSUS system recorded the sound of impact and they’ll be able to triangulate it. I read that the Navy used SOSUS data (literally, the recorded sounds of the subs’ hulls crushing under pressure as they sank, and if that doesn’t make your blood run cold you’re probably already dead) to locate both the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion, as well as the Soviet sub they later fished up with the Glomar Explorer.*
But there’s a good possibility we’ll never find the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, and will never know what happened to bring it down.
* Coincidence department: both the Glomar Explorer and the ship my father served on in WWII (about which I was blogging mere hours ago) were built by Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock in Chester, Pennsylvania.
Update (6/2/09): Searchers have found floating aircraft debris, and although positive identification has not been made, it is almost certain the crash site has been located. Next they’ll search for the black boxes. There’s a lot of speculation about lightning; I will note that aircraft are struck by lightning all the time and that I myself have been hit by lightning twice in the F-15 with no ill effects. Aircraft electronics are shielded from lightning; it’s not a likely cause IMHO. Now to wait for real evidence.
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