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Experts Discuss Theories On Crash of Air France Flight 447: Interview with Pilot Tom Casey

Locations in this article:  Paris, France

Airplane Flying
This past weekend, Peter sat down with a variety of experts to discuss the crash of Air France Flight 447.

He checked in with retired American Airlines pilot Tom Casey about flying in turbulent weather as well as Greg Feith, former lead NTSB investigator, about the ongoing investigation and recovery efforts, plus pilot Patrick Smith and Wall Street Journal columnist Scott McCartney.

To listen to these interviews and more, click here to visit our radio archives.

First up was retired American Airlines pilot Tom Casey…

Peter Greenberg: We’re just trying to assemble the intuitive pieces here because we have so little to go on.

Tom Casey: Well, that’s really the problem. I studied the meteorological data that they have so far, and it was an evil group of storms in what they call the “tropical convergence zone.” These storms were forming rapidly. I also took a look at the area near the debris field. I think the depth is something like 13,000 feet, roughly equivalent to the depth that the Titanic sank to. It may be that they’ll never retrieve the data recorders. But to me, it looks like there is a possibility that the pilot got boxed in. These were rapidly forming cumulonimbus clouds. When they’re rapidly forming, they don’t necessarily have a radar footprint because they haven’t developed the level of moisture and rain, but they’re very turbulent. These were very powerful storms.

Stormy cloudsPG: So what you’re saying is that the pilot didn’t see it on his radio because it may not have been on his radar.

TC: It’s true. I remember I was in the Air Force flying a C-38. I was flying in Alabama in clear air besides building thunderstorms. I had a 6,000 rate-per-minute climb going, and the cumulonimbus was building faster than I could climb. So that’s an incredibly dynamic storm system when you have cells building at that rate. He may have entered a path that seemed clear to begin with, and then got walled in—like flying into a boxed canyon of turbulent air and thunderheads. We can’t know for sure, but we know the weather was severe and rapidly developing. They’re probably going to have to take radio transmissions between other pilots who were on those routes.

The advantage of having flight data recording is that they can analyze that crash. They’ll be able to tell you what happened, when it happened, why it happened, and what was being experienced by the airframe. What happened here on Flight 447 is if we don’t get the flight data recording, it’s all going to be speculation.

PG: Initial reports were that it might have been hit by lightning. You and I might intuitively agree that lightning alone could not have caused this.

LightningTC: No, lightning I don’t think is effective at all because planes are not grounded. But if you can imagine driving a truck at 100 miles an hour through potholes, you can get a sense of what the conditions were like. There are design limitations for any vehicle. Let’s say he was flying for 45 minutes in extreme turbulence—then the wings could certainly rip off.

PG: And then there’s the debris they found in the ocean. At this reporting, it’s been measured at 55 square miles. That seems to indicate beyond a reasonable doubt that the plane broke apart in the air and the debris was spread out even before hitting the water.

TC: Until they collect it all they’re going to have to speculate. There are devices on the data recorder and they can be tracked, but the question is whether they’ll be able to find it.

PG: There is some electronic evidence that at a certain point in this plane’s flight there were at least 10 separate electronic messages sent to the maintenance base in Paris and to Airbus in Toulouse. That would be normal standard procedure the way these planes were designed. But 10 were sent in a row, and each one was saying we have no electricity, we have no flight control, we’ve lost this, we’ve lost that … that would indicate that plane was basically breaking up in the air.

Air traffic mapTC: It certainly points to a problem that was developing and ongoing. That’s one of the things that modern jetliners have—they’re self-diagnostic and self-reporting. We used to joke in the cockpit that you can’t cover up mistakes because the airplane has already told on you. In this case, the airplane was telling a story that it was in trouble and losing their systems. I know that they lost their Air Data Inertial Reference Unit (ADIRU), which controls all of the main systems. With a malfunction of the ADIRU, the plane was really losing its soul. We all want answers to the questions we have, and the questions keep multiplying.

PG: With all fairness to the investigators, even if this was an easy one to figure out, we wouldn’t know a definitive probable cause for weeks or months.

TC: Then you get to the question that if it did break up in turbulence, why was it in that turbulence? This was an experienced pilot. No pilot with that experience would take the plane to situation that was inescapable. There must have been some remarkable meteorological conditions at the time he encountered what he did. It’s important to remember that this was a one in a million situation.

To listen to the full interview, listen to the show online here.

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