Rio to Paris AF447 tragedy: black boxes retrieved and readable. What next?

Aircraft black boxes are orange

   The Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data recorder, a.k.a: “the black boxes” (so called despite their orange colour) have been recovered nearly two years after Air France flight AF447 from Rio to Paris went down for unknown reasons in the Equatorial Zone, an area of the globe known for extreme weather.  However, the downed airliner, an Airbus A330 has a good reputation and, together with its well trained crew, it should have flown routinely through that zone on the way to Paris, at normal cruising altitude.

   It didn’t. What went wrong? Where are we now in terms of filling in the blanks thanks to the data contained in the black boxes?

  Days have gone by while the black boxes are being examined in the laboratory setting of the ‘Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses’ (BEA), a French accident investigation body, well equipped for the job.

   What has transpired since the box were opened in the BEA’s labs a week ago?  Zilch, except for the good news that the recorded pre-crash cockpit conversation and flight data are totally readable, despite a two-year stay under water at a depth of about 13,000 feet. An excellent outcome for the investigation of an aviation tragedy that seemed at times unexplainable. What is going on now at the BEA with the black boxes is a secret only a very small elite knows about.

   What visible action has been taken since the black boxes underwent decoding and serious technical scrutiny by the BEA?  Here is what we now know for now: French news sources report that reassuring telex messages have been sent to operators of Airbus 330 to the effect that no immediate action is required, based on preliminary data obtained from the doomed Airbus 330’s black boxes.  Such a reassuring and hasty statement can mean two things: 1) whatever corrective action might be required can wait, and 2) the preceding statement is based on preliminary data. Confusing statement if anything. The world can turn upside down in the meanwhile and the reassuring statement from Airbus Industries would still remain suitably vague and appropriate.

   Behind the scenes, though, criminal proceedings against potential culprits in the AF447 have started. Some sources report that, while judicial proceedings are underway, the contents of the perfectly readable black boxes’ recording cannot yet be released. What’s this new legal impediment to public disclosure of the black boxes?

   Another alleged reason supporting the non-disclosure of the contents of the black boxes to everyone concerned with the AF447 disaster is that the BEA must first ascertain having interpreted and analyzed the recordings in a way that will lead to accurate findings, findings that will actually identify the causes and culprits directly and indirectly involved in the AF447 crash. Culprits, or causes in a long chain of contributing factors, no doubt.

   “Identify culprits”, “Lay blame”… These are just media lines. Useless jargon, except for legal beagles.  First and foremost, relatives of victims, operators of the same type of aircraft, manufacturers of the aircraft and of its components should not have to wait, in order to take necessary safety action, for any blame to be technically ascribed to any entities, individual or corporate. They need to know NOW how to act, on the side of caution, of course, more than two years after the agonizing event.

   France’s major airline pilots’ union is incensed at the recent turn of events in which the aircraft manufacturer was prompt to issue the vague statement referred to above, one that was sent a number of times to all operators of the Airbus 330 type of aircraft. The union feels that the pilots of the doomed Airbus A330 are being unjustly finger-pointed in the absence of any serious signs of aircraft malfunction detected so far.

   This is happening against a backdrop of concerned parties patiently waiting for 1) the in-depth and almost irrefutable findings by the BEA,  2) the findings that might not be made public until the technical report in its entirety is filed with the judicial authorities involved in uncovering possible human criminal error or neglect leading up to the crash. Let us pause here, for a moment, to remember how it took the Concorde case 10 years to reach the criminal liability hearings stage in Pontoise, north of Paris. Closure after an aviation accident cannot wait that long anymore. Justice delayed is Justice denied. In the case of AF447, the contents of the black boxes’ recordings might not be disclosed before July or so. A few more weeks to go! Suspense is running high and so are tensions among major stakeholders in the crash.

   Let us keep in mind however that the recovery of the black boxes, two years after the crash, at a depth of around 4,000 metres below sea level (about 13,000 feet deep) is in itself a feat and a gesture of due diligence and best efforts on the part of Air France and Airbus Industries (EADS). The upcoming days hold a few surprises, including – why not? – the full public release of the decoded contents of the black boxes against all technical, legal and judicial odds. For the record, let it be known that France’s administrative and judicial processes tend to be burdensome and lengthy, ‘rigueur intellectuelle oblige’, although major systemic reforms are reportedly under way. This is not new nor limited to France. “La sécurité aérienne, c’est moi” Louis XIV would have said, had he been alive today.

   So far, it would seem that the parties mostly concerned, such as relatives of the AF447 victims, might require a little more patience.

   Why?  Why in a French jurisdiction? Why is the American NTSB more proactive in getting concerned parties in on the action as opposed to the French way of putting on the breaks before the public release of any significant info?

   Why does the BEA have to be so concerned about impeccable and time-consuming analysis of the back boxes in order to pinpoint blame on some entities for the sad fate of flight AF447, subject to judicial consideration by the French judicial system?

   In the best of worlds, it seems that the sooner the European Union manages to implement uniform standards across member countries for the purpose of investigating public transportation accidents, the better. In that respect, France might in fact be lagging behind the NTSB, its Canadian counter-part and other proactive civil aviation authorities, in revealing promptly the hard facts as to what happened in any transportation accident of the magnitude of AF447’s deadly splash down from cruise flight. Cruising flight it was indeed, not taking off nor landing, but in that very stage of flight where accident statistics are lowest.

   What happened to flight AF447 up there, dodging documented weather disturbances? We are still clueless after months and years of beating up the A-330’s Pitot tubes with a thousand accusatory sticks, until the last few days after the perfectly readable black boxes were finally been recovered from the abyss of the Atlantic ocean. Pitot Tubes may have been a causal factor; however, Airbus maintains that no immediate corrective action is required, assuming perhaps that A-330 operators already updated Pitot tubes that were prone to icing and subsequent unreliability of input to on-board automated flight control and monitoring systems. 

   At the time of the crash, there were nasty cells moving about in the vicinity of AF447’s flight track in the Equatorial Zone. Mind you, other airliners made it safely through the same zone at about the same time along different tracks and in the same messy weather. Some of them altered course to avoid the worst of active cells, a manoeuvre that underscores the severity of the weather disturbances in the area where AF447 went down. That much we know.  Part of airline safety is predicated on modern jetliners’ ability to fly above the weather. The equation is not that simple near the Equator where the atmosphere is notoriously unstable up to altitudes of 50,000 feet, way above jetliners’ normal cruising altitudes. At the opposite end, i.e.: way down below, even offshore sailboats crossing the Equatorial Zone feel the wrath of dynamic and unstable air in the form of squalls upon squalls from all directions. Whatever mode of transportation one is using, to allow crossing the equator, Neptune exacts a toll. However, airliners should be impervious to Neptune’s mood swings because of their ability to detect and dodge any significant weather beyond safe and comfortable flight.

   At this point, hinting at the fact that pilot error may have been a contributing factor in the AF447 ocean crash, is premature and also insulting to the highly qualified pilots at the controls of AF447 and to their peers presently flying for reputable airlines around the world.

   Hey, folks!  In the meantime, let us look at the positives as we impatiently await actual info on AF447’s pre-crash moments. This calls for a round of applause for those hard working and determined professionals from various walks of life who finally located and retrieved AF447’s precious black boxes from the Deep Blue. After all, they did find the two sought-after needles in the proverbial haystack, an accomplishment nobody took for granted prior to the fact.

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