The disappearance and presumed crash of a Malaysia Airlines 777 plane with over 200 people on board brings back memories of Air France flight 447, which went missing over the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009.
The Airbus A330 took off from Rio de Janeiro and was bound for Paris when it crashed, killing all 228 people on board.
The search for the aircraft began when the Air France Operations Coordination Centre alerted the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA) that it had lost contact with the plane.
A search began immediately, using air, naval, and underwater operations, including autonomous underwater vehicles.
The first bits of debris were found on the ocean surface on June 6, five days after the crash. The bulk of the wreckage was located in April 2011, nearly two years later. The “black boxes” — the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder — were found a month after that. Only then could investigators form a complete picture of what brought down the plane.
The problem was that the jet crashed, the BEA final report says, “in a region with rugged terrain and whose ocean bed presents great variation in depth over short distances of between 700 metres and 4,300 metres.”
In other words, it was a remarkably difficult area to search. Most of the wreckage was eventually found 6.5 nautical miles from the last known position, on a plain 3,900 meters below the surface.
So far, no wreckage from the Malaysia plane has been found, though a Vietnamese air force aircraft located two large oil slicks that may be from the missing plane. The aerial search will resume once the sun has risen. Fortunately, the Gulf of Thailand is just 250 feet deep at its deepest point, according to airline analyst Robert W. Mann, Jr., so the search should be much shorter than the Air France one.
Investigators ultimately determined that the Air France flight went down after the pilots reacted improperly after ice crystals blocked air speed sensors. They ultimately stalled the plane, causing the crash.
There’s no reason to think that the same thing happened here, because we have no information about what happened to the Malaysia jet, and officials say there were no reports of bad weather along the route. A crucial step in figuring that out will be finding the wreckage and the black boxes.
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