Thursday, January 20, 2011

When airborne disasters come to mind


If you have been reading this blog for a while, then you already know that my train of thought is somewhat peculiar.  I have no explanation as to the hows or whys that a particular packet of information might suddenly bubble to the top of my conscious thought, but it happens nonetheless.  
Today it was this (perhaps because I recently watched Donnie Darko):  I wonder if they ever found out what happened to Air France Flight 447?  It was an Airbus 330 enroute from Rio de Janiero to Paris on June 1, 2009.  Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, the aircraft crashed into the sea.  It's a difficult case to investigate and find out what happened for a number of reasons.  For one, there are no living witnesses and precious little has been recovered from the ocean.  The vertical stabilizer was found, likewise a bit of luggage, and sadly a few bodies, but paltry amounts to aid in the determining of what caused the tragedy.  Another complication is the fact that the black boxes were never recovered.  This is understandable as finding the devices would indeed be a herculean task.  One French official described it as "trying to find a shoe box in an area the size of Paris, at a depth of 3,000 m (9,800 ft) and in a terrain as rugged as the Alps."  French officials have announced that a new search will be undertaken at the beginning of next month, utilizing sonar from one of their nuclear submarines.
As of yet, there is no answer as to what caused the crash.  The leading theory at this time is malfunctioning pitot probe, causing a misread in the plane's airspeed.  If the plane was in reality not going fast enough, it might have stalled out and ditched into the sea.  If on the other hand the speed was excessive, the airframe might have broken apart and sent them all into the water.  No one knows.  Yet.

This in turn got me onto another tangent of thought.  I remember reading somewhere about a cargo plane that made a flight over the Pacific in the 1950s.  The aircrew encountered a most terrific surge of turbulence and a compromise in the plane's hull.  Upon arriving at their destination, three vertical slashes were found in the topside of the fuselage...almost like claw marks.  No one ever determined what they were from.  I have been so far unsuccessful in finding sources for this story online.  I might have perhaps gotten it confused with a sci fi short story.

Then I thought about TWA Flight 800.  That was the 747 that exploded shortly after takeoff in July of 1996 and plummeted into the waters off of Long Island, New York.  Damn near every piece of that plane was recovered, but I couldn't remember hearing what the final verdict was on the crash.  I remember that a detonation of fuel vapors in the fuel tank was tossed around at the time, but I was under the impression that the fuel tank's manufacturer shot that hypothesis down rather handily.  Not so, it turns out.  In the year 2000, the investigation concluded the fuel tank detonation to be the likely explanation.
Several...shall we say, "alternative" theories have abounded regarding the tragedy of Flight 800.  Many witnesses say they saw a missile streaking towards the aircraft and then a detonation.  Terrorism was then thrust into the lead as a probable cause.  This was said to be demonstrated as false and I think that likely.  No terrorist cell ever took responsibility for the air disaster and it seems to me that if they succeeded with this one, there would have been many more incidents of airliners downed by portable, shoulder-fired missiles.  Another speculation is that our armed forces shot it down in a tragic accident.  There were military exercises going on in the area at the time and let's face it, if this is really what happened there is no way they would tell us about it.  The strongest bit of evidence I've seen to support this theory is the story of former airline pilot, Ray Lahr.  Lahr filed a FOIA request for documents from both the NTSB and the CIA on the Flight 800 matter.  He was denied.  Lahr then took it to court and won.  Once forced to cough up the documents, the government agencies involved claimed to have "lost" them.  Yep.  Something's rotten in Denmark and it ain't the smørrebrød.

So travel safe, everyone.  I'm sure the airlines and our government only have our best interests at heart.


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