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June 18, 2009

The Fate of Air France Flight 447

by Clive Irving

French officials are not stonewalling on the fate of Air France Flight 447. They just don't have much to go on. Without finding the black box data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, both of which are presumably resting on the ocean floor, the clue trail is frustratingly thin.

The trail remains the product of three sources: the 24 messages indicating a sequence of failures aboard the Airbus A330 sent digitally in the last four minutes of the flight; fragments of wreckage so far recovered, essentially only anything that could float; and autopsy reports on the recovered bodies.

The autopsies would show if the victims inhaled smoke and, therefore, if there had been a fire and they might show physical damage from a sudden loss of cabin pressurization.

Interestingly enough, the only news yet to come from the autopsies is that there were broken arms and legs. This could indicate what everything else is pointing to: A sudden and violent breakup of the airplane.

Nonetheless, even the best informed speculation is just that: speculation. The sonar pingers on the black box have only another two weeks of life left in them. A French nuclear submarine and American sonar searching gear have been deployed in the area of the South Atlantic where the remnants of the airplane are assumed to be, but it's a huge area to cover in such a short time and many experts doubt that the black box can be found before the pingers give out. That doesn't mean that the search stops at that point. It just becomes even harder.

Digital Flight Data Recorder Click the black box infographic above for a full-size version
Illustration: John Grimwade

Further reading:
* The Paris Air Show and the Brouhaha over Air France's 330 Crash
* Flight 447: The Pilots' Deadly Scenario

Read Clive Irving's dispatches on Flight 447 in The Daily Beast:

* Picking up the Pieces from a Midair Explosion (June 14)
* The Myth of the Black Box (June 7)
* The Secrets of Flight 447 (June 6)
* Who Was Flying Flight 447? (June 5)
* Last Words of Flight 447: From a Robot (June 3)

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