FF Safety: Air France 447: 263 Seconds (Part One)

Today is the beginning of a five-part series exploring the loss of Air France Flight 447 and the lessons firefighters can learn about effective teamwork, communication and decision making in a high risk environment.

On May 31st, 2009, at about 22:30, Air France flight 447 departed Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, on a scheduled flight to Paris, France.  On board were 216 passengers and a crew of twelve, including a captain and two co-pilots.

The aircraft was an Airbus A-330-200, a wide-body jet with extended range capability.  AF-447’s flight path would take them gradually northeast out over the Atlantic, up the west coast of Africa and near the Canary islands before landfall on the European Continent.

The news on June 1st was dominated by the reports of the disappearance of AF-447 without a trace.  The flight had reached cruise altitude and vanished with no communication from the flight deck.  The only evidence in support of a problem was a flurry of satellite-relayed automated messages sent from the aircraft’s highly computerized control center reporting the loss of key functions on-board.

Press reports centered on the notion that the A-330 encountered severe weather activity and associated turbulence, broke up as a result, and plunged to the sea.  In the ensuing days, rescue aircraft and surface ships reached the last known flight track and discovered a floating debris field and a number of bodies.

Two and one-half  years later the examination of the AF-447 evidence, including extensive study of the recorders, debris and simulations points to a far more complex explanation than a run in with a thunderstorm.  Embedded in the conclusions are extremely valuable lessons for anyone working in an environment where time sensitive, critical decision making is required.

The A-330 series are among the most sophisticated passenger aircraft in the world.  They are “fly-by-wire” where the crew inputs commands using a joystick.  The commands are translated into electrical impulses that pass through a series of flight computers causing control surfaces to be actuated.  The hallmark of the design is redundancy where the various systems are integrated as well as the ability to prevent the aircraft from being operated outside specified parameters under “normal” conditions.  This operating environment is called “normal law” and would figure prominently in the AF-447 incident.  In normal law, no matter what commands the flying pilot inputs, the aircraft will not exceed safe parameters.

Tomorrow- FF Safety: Air France 447 Disaster: Epic Search (Part Two)

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