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June 5th, 2009
09:32 AM ET

Expert: Investigators blind without wreckage

Fmr. NTSB Managing Director says investigaors are blind without plane's wreckage.

Fmr. NTSB Managing Director says investigaors are blind without plane's wreckage.

The Brazilian air force is now saying that debris picked up Thursday near where officials believe Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean is not from the plane. Officials are saying it's “sea trash” and not part of the jet that apparently went down with 228 people on board.

Peter Goelz is the former Managing Director of the National Transportation Safety Board. He spoke to John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Friday.

John Roberts: Are you surprised to hear the news that what officials thought was the wreckage of Flight 447 turned out to be just sea trash?

Peter Goelz: Well, I thought the announcement was a little premature. But it's very disappointing because it really sets the investigation back in terms of searching for the flight data recorder and the voice recorder. They don't know where to start.

Roberts: So they’re back to square one again. What about the other pieces of debris they saw floating in the ocean – pieces of metal, bales of wire? Will that give them some idea of where the plane when down?

Goelz: The longer time goes on, the further away from the actual crash site the debris floats. It will be terribly challenging to find where to start the search for the data recorders and the clock is ticking. The batteries on the locator devices attached to the black boxes have a limited life span – just 30 days.

Roberts: In your experience, will they continue to work in the depth of water that this plane might be in by looking at the ocean floor? Depending on if it rolled in a canyon or sitting on top of a sea mount, it could be anywhere from 2,000 feet deep to 14,000 feet deep.

Goelz: The depth of water is challenging but it doesn't eliminate it. We've recovered boxes as deep as 6,000 or 7,000 feet. We recovered debris from as much as 10,000 feet.

Roberts: Looking at the electrical malfunction signals sent out from the aircraft, do you believe there's a chance that so many systems went down that these pilots were flying blind for a time? Flying blind at night is particularly difficult.

Goelz: These messages sent out automatically are very intriguing. First of all, we don't know how many there were. We’ve had different reports on it. But very clearly, the French investigative agency, the BEA, is interested in this. And that announcement that Airbus sent out late yesterday with the approval of the BEA indicates there’s some concern that there was a faulty speed indicator on the aircraft. That could really be disastrous. And it's happened before. The speed is determined in an aircraft by two devices facing forward called the Pitot tubes and then they have static port and that’s how the speed and altitude is determined. If they're malfunctioning, it can give a false read into the cockpit that can be misinterpreted and a disaster can follow.

Roberts: I read one report there might have been ice buildup on the tip of the tubes that helps to measure air speed. There were a couple of recent incidents on that type of aircraft in which there was a mismatch between the computers reading speed indicators and the computer went with the one that was reading the low speed and put the plane into a dive. Air France is saying that this is different equipment on the aircraft than the aircraft that went into a dive. Is it possible that they suffered the same problem and given the fact that the pilots were having all of the conflicting reports that they could have gone into a fatal dive that was so fast that it ripped the aircraft apart?

Goelz: Airbus has said it's a different manufacturer of the unit. I'm sure the BEA will look at that carefully. The real issue is, were these signals correct in how they were received over a period of time? Or were they all blasted out at one time, which would reflect a catastrophic event at altitude?

Roberts: On that point, can we rule out foul play?

Goelz: You cannot rule out foul play without the physical evidence. When we investigated the accident of TWA flight 800 off of the coast of Long Island, we spent a lot of time, the NTSB, examining the wreckage to see if there were any signs of a bomb or even a missile strike. We found no physical evidence. That's the way you can eliminate terrorism. That's the only way.

Roberts: So until you find the wreckage, you're really blind in all of this, right?

Goelz: You really are.


Filed under: Transportation
soundoff (116 Responses)
  1. Fernando

    It's funny how no one has talked about the possibility of a cockpit fire. This has happened in the past, and with comms going first and everything else failing in some sort of a cascade effect, this is a very plausible scenario.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:48 pm |
  2. sportsfan1999

    Sheesh, my GPS can tell me how fast my car is going. With all the avionics and stuff, there is nothing that reports the aircrafts location or any type of backup for a speed sensor.

    Seems like a total oversight.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:48 pm |
  3. dust

    The lives of 228 human beings should not be disrespected with horrible Lost jokes.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:48 pm |
  4. ron smith

    pilot tube measuring air speed ??? might be a little difficult in the middle of a storm cell with up drafts and down drafts as much as 100mph , be curious how it factors in a head or tail wind wich would add or take away from percieved speed or mph ??? if it was the air bus that gave off what the other pilots near that location saw , a bright white flash of lite , and then an insueg object going strait down , only one thing gives off bright white light , very high voltage or lightning , usualy i think lightning would pass through an air plane as its obviously not grounded , but being over water in a thunder cloud at night in the pouring and wind blown rain its not to much of a stretch to believe all that water being an exellent conductor may have grounded the thing to the ocean and exploded a section of it like a tree on the ground...damageing it enough to cause electrical failure and eventualy a total loss of control , no big chunks of wreckage have been found , if it went strait in , it submarined and probably broke up into large sections and sank, i would focus on the area these spanish pilots saw the flash and dive , they probably logged in there bearing or location at that point. i get the feeling brazil is being a bit deceptive on this incident , almost hopeing it isnt found , now what do you suppose could have been on that plane that would cause that type of attitude ?? floating sea junk and an large oil slick in the ficinity of the dissapearence is mighty strange , got some people thinking it hit another plane "smugglers" now that pretty far out there , curious why they would ignore three eye witnesses that seen the flash and dive ???? wierd !

    June 5, 2009 at 12:42 pm |
  5. tonto

    This is in response to some of the questions and suggestions above. I am an NFO so I have some knowledge of the whys and hows being asked concerning this incident: Radar has a limited range, the ocean is big, covering the entire ocean with radar would require a line of ships. It is no big deal that transoceanic flights are off radar for a while, there is not that much traffic over blue water. Cell phones and internet connections won't reach over the ocean unless they are satcom, your cell phone is not that, it has a very small range, that is why cell towers are everywhere. Telemetry transmissions over water are very difficult even now and require sat, real time monitoring of cockpit instrumentation and discussion in flights is not feasible/practical and not useful when compared to the percentage of incidents such as this one. Modern aircraft are fly-by-wire for a reason, they are too complex and big for old fashioned seat of the pants flying. We may never know exactly why this plane went down, the ocean is almost indescribably vast and deep.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:37 pm |
  6. get a grip

    do all you sudden experts really think ideas for improving safety are not reviewed yearly by the industry and governments. there are serious issues with lots of the 'ideas' being tossed out. the best answer is the continous transmission one but it suffers from two major problems. Pilots don't want it because then it would allow airlines to analyze and rate their ability rather than base it on seniority. It opens airlines up to the possiblity of lawsuits from passengers you claim the "rough ride" should have been avoidable. number one though is cost. it would have to be some sort of satellite transmission system. the cheapest part would be the onboard transmitter. the real cost would be launching and monitoring all the satellites required to cover the entire earth (there is a reason we use "cell" phones and not "sat" phones).

    June 5, 2009 at 12:37 pm |
  7. Paul

    Since the data recorders more than likely record aircraft position at the time of the event, if the recorder was made to float and floated a 1000 miles away, the data could be analyzed to tell investigators its last know position....doesn't that make sense?

    June 5, 2009 at 12:37 pm |
  8. Stephanie

    if the black boxes have pingers to help in location, is that signal strong enough to help locate the wreckage (which may be nearby) too?

    and really, if there is a locator device on the black boxes why don't we know where it is? even if reaching it is a challenge.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:35 pm |
  9. mel

    Although tragic, I thini it is really odd that there was an oil slick, airplane parts, and large "Debris" found, that yet do not match up with the plane thats missing. Had anyone considered mid air collision or any type of other vessel that could have been involved. Everyone is right – a plane that crashes into the ocean, regardless of how fast, how high up, or how deep the water doesn't just leave nothing behind....creepy.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:32 pm |
  10. THE JOKER

    ANDY DUFFY – WOW, you should work for NASA. LOSER!

    June 5, 2009 at 12:29 pm |
  11. Chuck

    To Michael – storms in the Intertropical Convergence Zone can tower as high as ~55,000 feet, higher than conventional passenger jets are able to fly.

    A better question would be why the pilots didn't find a hole or an area with fewer storms to travel through, even if it meant adding an hour's flight time? I wonder if this plane didn't have pre-existing electrical issues and the storm aggravated the issues. The automated messages received in France make it appear the flight suffered a 'domino effect' of failures but was a bolt of lightning the catalyst?

    I agree with other posters that there is more to this story than has been revealed and we may never know all of those details, especially if the black boxes and cockpit voice recorders are not recovered.

    To Patel – Redbox is a video rental machine, found inside or outside of some retail stores and McDonald's locations in the U.S. while black boxes are an airplane's flight data recorders.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:28 pm |
  12. Carl

    Airspeed – pitot tubes measure true airspeed (speed of the plane through the air) vs. GPS measures ground speed (speed of the plane over the ground). There's a difference between the two based on wind. Flight controls (i.e. plane stalls out due to lack of speed) are dependent on true airspeed. With a significant tailwind (such as 200 knots from the jet stream), it's possible to stall out a plane traveling 350 knots ground speeed because the airplane is only traveling 150 knots relative to the air.

    Floating flight data recorders would be a good concept, except it would require some means of separating the FDR from the aircraft upon water impact...otherwise, it'd be like dragging a life preserver down with a sinking ship.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:28 pm |
  13. Pichet

    From what I've heard, the plane went off radar...did not fall off radar all of a sudden.

    A new modern airliner such as the A330-200 does not crash because of turbulence, or lightning. To my knowledge, no plane has ever crashed because of turbulence, microburst yes, turbulence no...especially not at an altitude of 35,000 feet.

    To be honest, I'm still leaning towards foul play. There were bomb threats made on an Air France 777 flying out of Buenos Aires; I wonder how the security screening is at GIG.

    A normal reason for a plane to fall out of the sky all of a sudden is metal fatigue...but for a plane this new, that's not likely. I'm really curious to see what happens.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:23 pm |
  14. Robert

    I fly the A330 for a living with a major U.S. airline. A couple of points. Pitot-static icing was almost certainly not a factor. The system is continuously heated in flight with automatic warning to the crew if there are any failures. Besides, the typical tempurature at FL350 is too cold for icing to be a factor. Engine and wing anti-ice are not even required to be on if outside air temp is -40C or colder. The plane navigates primarily with multiple gps systems backed up by 3 inertial reference systems, but this does not in any way effect airspeed ; the airflow over the wings which determines whether you have enough lift to provide "flight". GPS only provides "groundspeed" , your speed over the ground. Ground based radar that tracks aircraft for air traffic control is "line of sight" and we typically loose that radar coverage somewhere around 200 nm for the closest ground based antenna so any and all oceanic flights worldwide are flying out of radar coverage for much of the flight. I would think the leading theories at this point would explore 1) severe turbulence that exceeded the "normal law" protections provided by the airbus fly-by-wire system putting the aircraft into what airbus calls "abnormal attitude law" or (2) a failure of the ADR (air data reference) computer system that interpret pitot-static information for the computers. There are 3 of these on board and if one fails the system should disregard the failed system and continue using the 2 good systems; but in a recent incident, the computer elected to follow the commands of the failed unit and disregarded the input of the 2 good units....NOT GOOD.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:20 pm |
  15. Doug

    For those of you wondering why doesn't it have GPS. If their was GPS onboard it would be useless; because any amount of water will block all satellite signals. Radio waves cannot penetrate any depth of water.

    June 5, 2009 at 12:18 pm |
  16. david

    They haven't found the plane because it's not missing....and this is simply a cover up....they just needed another cast for LOST!

    June 5, 2009 at 12:18 pm |
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