NEW YORK - So what happened to Air France Flight 447? It is early and speculation at this juncture is often wildly wrong. And remember, there are usually several factors that conspire to bring an airliner down.
But here is what we do know for sure. Keep this in mind as you process the often inaccurate reporting on aviation that is so prevalent in the mainstream media.
The Timeline - The flight, carrying 216 passengers and 12 crewmembers, left Rio de Janeiro at 2203 GMT (7:03 PM local time). It flew beyond radar coverage 3 hours and 33 minutes later (at 0133 GMT). A half hour later (0200 GMT) - now four hours into the flight - the plane encountered heavy turbulence. Fourteen minutes later (0214 GMT), now a long way out to sea, it transmitted an automated signal indicating a failure in an electrical circuit. A company spokesman is hinting other systems might have failed as well.
It was a dark and stormy night - in a place that is home to the world's worst thunderstorms. Just as it disappeared, the Airbus A330-203 was flying into a thick band of convective activity that rose to 41,000 feet. This equatorial region is known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (see tinyurl.com/nzpouk ) - it is where Northeast and Southeast Trade Winds meet - forcing a lot of warm, moist air upward - which condenses - an efficient thunderstorm producing machine.
The crew had Sully-esque seasoning - The Captain had 11,000 hours total time (1700 in the Airbus A330/A340). One co-pilot had 3,000 hours total time (800 in the Airbus A330/340) and the other co-pilot had 6,600 hours total time (2,600 in the Airbus A330/340).
The Airbus A330 has a good record - and this was the first crash of a twin-engine A330 in revenue service in its history. In 1994, seven employees of Airbus died when a 330 went down during a test flight. The accident report says it was a case of pilot error (see here ) The airplane that crashed last night - tail number F-GZCP - had no accidents or incidents in its history. It went into service on April 18, 2005 and had logged 18,870 hours. It was in the hangar on April 18 for routine maintenance.
No reason to believe terrorism - No groups have claimed any responsibility, but you cannot take the possibility of a bomb off the list just yet.
So consider this as a possible scenario. The crew is flying toward a line of storms in the dark, out of range of land-based radar. They are equipped with on-board weather radar, however - and can use it to thread their way through the bad cells if need be.
It is quite likely the airplane was struck by lightning. That could have triggered a fuel fire - but that is highly unlikely. In fact, it has been 42 years since lightning alone caused an airliner crash in the U.S. A lot of time and effort is spent protecting airplanes from the clear and present danger (interesting piece here )
And since Airbus builds so called fly-by-wire aircraft (meaning the controls in the cockpit are linked to the movable surfaces on the airplane by electrical wires and computers), engineers in Toulouse have gone out of their way to demonstrate their products are safe in stormy weather. There are four fully redundant electrical systems on an Airbus - and if the worst happens a manual flight control system allows the crew to manipulate the rudder and the fine aero-surface controls called trim tabs.
Interestingly, one of the systems most vulnerable to lightning strikes is the on-board weather radar located in the nose cone. It cannot do its job if it is shielded from lightning like the rest of the airplane - and so it is more likely to go down when lightning strikes (which is of course when you need it most).
So it is possible this plane was hit by lightning, knocking out the radar. The crew was suddenly preoccupied with an electrical failure, in the dark, over the ocean and without weather radar as they hurtled toward some epic cumulus nimbus thunderheads. Most captains prefer to be on the flight deck for take-off and landing. Was the most seasoned aviator in his bunk when all this transpired?
The fact that the airplane sent a message that it had an electrical problem means, by definition, that it was not a total, instant failure. But did things cascade from there? They might have found themselves inside a huge storm only able to control the airplane manually - which means minimally - with the rudder primarily.
You may recall the crash of American Airlines flight 587 on November 12, 2001 as it departed New York's JFK airport. The plane encountered some wake turbulence and the co-pilot apparently stepped too hard on the rudder pedals - breaking off the graphite vertical stabilizer and rudder (the tail).
Even today's advanced - seemingly invincible - airliners are no match for Mother Nature on a bad night. If the conditions conspire against you, even a big airliner can be torn to pieces in an instant.
We do know whatever happened on that airplane in its last few minutes was nothing short of horrifying. My heart goes out to the passengers and crew.
Will we ever know what happened? This one will be hard. The wreckage will be likely strewn over a wide area - and locating the Flight Data and Cockpit Voice Recorders won't be easy since they are likely at the bottom of the sea - hopefully emitting their distinctive pinging noise. But just knowing where to home in for a search will be difficult.