Only two things are certain about the loss of Air France flight AF447 last night.

It suffered unprecedented massive electrical failures, and a catastrophic loss of control.

Everything else is speculation, and it is far from certain that any physical trace of the Airbus A330-200 or the 228 people on board the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris will be found in the mid Atlantic search zone.

Yes, there may be an Australian connection, if the electrical failures are revealed to indicate problems with the air data inertial reference units or ADIRUs that failed with nearly tragic consequences for a Qantas A330-300 before it made an emergency landing at Learmonth in WA on 7 October.

But that also is speculation. It isn’t yet known if the AIRU units used in the Air France jet were of the same design as those on the Qantas jet, and even if they were, this might not be relevant when or if more is learned about the AF447 tragedy.

The Qantas pilots had their hands full dealing with a problem with the units which fed spurious data to the control system while they were at cruise altitude heading toward Perth from Singapore.

The false data caused the jet to climb a short distance uncommanded, and then plunge sharply, only to again drop unexpectedly during what was a demanding mid flight control crisis for the two pilots whose timely recovery actions saved the jet.

More than 100 passengers and at least one cabin crew were injured to some degree by the incident, seven of them seriously, as people where flung upwards against overhead lockers with sufficient force to break some of them and parts of the ceiling panels.

However only Air France has a full picture of what sort of electrical faults happened on their jet, which had been flying through severe turbulence which is seasonal in nature and had been predicted and tracked by the weather services.

There were many flights using that general airspace that night, and turbulence, lightning (if in fact there were lightning strikes) and limited extent electrical failures are all part of operational life for all airlines and all types of jets.

It is reasonable therefore to speculate that something additionally abnormal or unprecedented did occur on AF447, and dozens of airlines flying hundreds of A330s, including Qantas and Jetstar will want to know as much about what happened as soon as possible.

And there is no doubt Air France will share everything it knows too, especially and at first with the accident investigators.

The only fatal accident that quickly springs to mind in terms of electrical faults was that of the loss of Swissair SR 111, an MD-11, which crashed at high speed into the sea near Nova Scotia on 28 September 1998, killing all 229 people on board.

However those faults were caused by a dangerously flawed in flight entertainment system in which overloaded cabling caused a fire that invaded the cockpit and cabin ceilings.

In Australia in the 60s the emotional trauma of missing airliners happened twice. In the countries worst ever crash, and the first fatal crash of a Fokker Friendship, a TAA flight approaching Mackay crashed into the sea at night killing all 29 people on board including nine schoolchildren. No bodies were ever found, only scraps of clothing, luggage and fittings, and no cause was ever established other than a probability that an altimeter was misread.

On 30 November 1961 an Ansett ANA Vickers Viscount vanished at night after leaving Sydney for Canberra. Floating wreckage was not found in Botany Bay until the next morning, close to a beach now buried under the third runway. All 15 people on board perished and the accident was found to have been caused by structural failures induced by a flight path that took the turbo prop straight through a powerful storm cell.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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