24 victims from Air France Flight 447 have been pulled from the sea so far. The number one priority according to the Brazilian military is recovering the bodies, but searchers are also desperately looking for the flight data recorders before time runs out. The area they’re concentrating on is about the size of Nebraska, almost 80,000 square miles.
Clive Irving says the daunting task of finding the so-called black boxes should be a wake-up call for doing away with this “antiquated technology.” Irving is the editor of Condé Nast Traveler magazine and specializes in aviation reporting. He joined John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Tuesday.
John Roberts: Brazilian authorities released a photo of the vertical stabilizer from Air France 447. It was found yesterday. It’s eerily similar, if you remember, to American Airlines 587 where they pulled the entire vertical stabilizer out of Jamaica Bay.
Clive Irving: In fact, it looks just like a plastic model assembly kit where you clip the vertical stabilizer on the fuselage and if you pull it off…it's an extraordinarily clean break there.
Roberts: And the fact that it is a clean break and it seems to be pretty much intact, does that give you a thought as to how this plane may have come down?
Irving: I think I’d be very wary to make a connection between the two things. Remember, this is a composite, not a metal vertical stabilizer. So the whole physics of the thing and how it shears off might be very different to the circumstances of an all metal plane.
Roberts: With American Airlines Flight 587, the pilots over-corrected. They put too much pressure on it and it snapped right off. We know the weather was bad in the area this aircraft was flying through.
Irving: Well yes it was. It was very bad. But I think the wake-up call here is the most significant thing, is we had our eyes pointed to a completely new technology that we almost didn't realize was there because the only clues that we have so far since this crash came from the uploaded data, the 24 messages sent to the maintenance center at Air France. That's all we've got to go on at the moment.
Roberts: Because the flight data recorders are at the bottom of the ocean. It could be as deep as 15,000 to 20,000 feet.
Irving: And we’ve never had that to rely on before. This is the first time this kind of information has been available or invoked. Which points, I think, to the fact that there is a parallel technology waiting to be employed. The information highway is already there in the sky; the communication satellites that you upload this information to. All we need now is to improve the messenger, that’s the system on the plane that collects all the data and sends it up.
Roberts: So you’re suggesting rather than relying on the so-called black boxes using real-time data streaming such as NASA uses with the shuttle?
Irving: Yeah, well in fact, this is a good example of something that works very well until it doesn’t. These data recorders always worked well in the past. They’re very efficient. They collect a lot of data. But then you get a situation where the black boxes weren't accessible. That wouldn't be a problem if you were able to upload the information. It's one step away from being able to make more sophisticated readings on the plane itself and transmit that stuff. The more information you can get about this and the faster you can get it in any aircraft situation is very valuable… because we're all speculating now the various theories of what might have happened, speculation is a very dangerous thing. We need to know.
Roberts: So instead of all of these parameters being recorded on the flight data recorder, if they were being uploaded and sent to the home base, you'd know what was going on with the aircraft at any given time.
Irving: Yeah, the standard right now for the black boxes is 88 parameters. In fact, until seven years ago, it was only 29. So we got 24 from [Air France 447]. That’s a short distance from 24 to 29. If we can get this digital system up to the same level – in fact, I don't see why we couldn't have both. Leave the black boxes in there and then add this. Also put it in the areas of the world where it's most important like this. You don't have to roll it out everywhere at once. Just dedicate satellites and the systems to those areas of the ocean where planes are likely to disappear.
Roberts: What about the cockpit voice recording? Would you upload that as well? If you have all of these thousands of planes flying around, can you handle that amount of data?
Irving: I think you can. You can handle any amount of data now. If you look at the cell phone system…It's very similar…Cell phone signals bouncing back and forth…
Roberts: A lot of people are talking about this. We’ll see if there's some move in this direction.
Irving: It’s a wake-up call.