Travel Tips

Former NTSB Lead Plane Crash Investigator on Air France Flight 447

Locations in this article:  London, England

Sunset skiesThis past weekend, Peter sat down with experts to discuss the crash of Air France Flight 447.

He checked in with Greg Feith, former lead investigator for the NTSB regarding the ongoing accident investigation and recovery efforts.

Peter Greenberg: I know you and I have been busy trying to make sense of all of this. We have very little to go on.

Greg Feith: That’s why it’s so critical that every effort be made to find the flight data recorder and cockpit recorder. They’re going to hold the keys to this mystery.

PG: I go back to Paul-Louis Arslanian, director of France’s Bureau of Investigation, who I know very well from my Dateline special on the Concorde, which crashed back in 2000. His reaction wasn’t very uplifting—he said we may never find out.

Air France logoGF: I was very disappointed to hear the French basically concede that point. Even if they are never found or the wreckage is never fully uncovered, they shouldn’t give up this early—not only from an accident investigation standpoint, but also from the perspective of the families. With multiple national resources available, you’ve got to give it your all. At least say you’ve done everything you possible could, but you can’t give up this early.

PG: The U.S. has already been asked for their help, correct?

GF: They’ve been asked to assist. The French has the lead of course, but they’ve said they don’t have the assets and the U.S. does. But I know that if this accident were under U.S. control, we’d have a flotilla out there, with submarines and everything else, looking for those two boxes.

PG: Where do we go from here? It was a plane built in France, it was operated by a French airlines, it broke up over international waters. But the French don’t have the resources, the Brazilians don’t have the resources, and we’ve been asked to assist. How fast are they getting out there?

NTSB logoGF: I don’t know what the politics are currently. But from our standpoint, that airplane is operated by two carriers here in the United States—US Airways and what used to be Northwest. That aircraft type is being operated in and out of the U.S. under code-share agreements. So if there is a problem with that airplane, the United States should be pushing to go in. We do have the assets and we’ve demonstrated that in the past by going down several thousand feet to pick up a cargo door at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

PG: The cargo door was from a United Airlines 747.

GF: Yes, it was United Airlines Flight 811, in which they lost the cargo door, which killed nine people on board. The door itself sank several thousand feet underwater and they were able to get a remote-operated vehicle out of a submarine down there.

PG: This also reminds me of the terrible tragedy of Air India Flight 182 in 1985. It was flying between Montreal and London when it blew up over the north Atlantic. There were very few clues.

GF: Correct. That whole story line developed from a lot of circumstantial but factual evidence. The true story took a very long time to piece together. While it is not beyond the realm of possibility that [the crash of Flight 447] was an intentional act, we may never have enough information to really support that.

Sunset and stormAnother thing I want to mention is that there are deployable recorders, which have been designed to separate from aircraft under certain conditions. If this airplane had been equipped with deployable recorders—and the military has been using them for 40 years—we would have had a recorder that would have left the airplane during the breakup sequence in-flight, land in the water somewhere, and float. It would have already started to transmit on the search-and-rescue signal, and we could have had a data recorder to analyze what’s going on.

PG: It’s like military fuel tanks are way ahead in technology than commercial airline fuel tanks.

GF: We could have had a good idea of what was going on with the airplane up to the time of the event, until the box stopped recording. Even if we didn’t have the wreckage, it would have given a lot of good data.

PG: You’ve been involved in a number of major accident investigations—the most notable being ValuJet in 1996 when it crashed into the Everglades. Based on your experience with all those investigations, just give me a ballpark guess—where do you think we’re going to go with this?

GF: If we do not find the wreckage, whatever information that was downloaded from that airplane, along with a deep and thorough analysis of the weather condition—unless someone comes forward and says they did something bad to that airplane—we’re probably going to have a cause of an accident that’s undetermined. We’ll have some information that we can put a storyline together, but we’ll never know the true cause of this event.

You can hear the whole interview here: Travel Detectives, Flight 447, and Puerto Rico’s Rainforest.

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