Missing plane baffles aviation experts
With a good safety record and robust backup systems, the Airbus 330 wouldn't be easily downed by lightning, they say.
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"Because of the fact that we had that report from the airplane itself, it indicates the plane was intact then. It also indicates there was two-way communication going on and the pilots would have had communications at least to their operations center, if not Air Traffic Control," says William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.Skip to next paragraph
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"All of these things just increase the level of mystery here as to why more information wasn't communicated," he says.
The A330 pilot says that the Air France pilots may have been "task saturated," that is, too busy trying to fly the plane to put out a Mayday call, but she adds that that's unlikely. She says it's also possible the pilots did put out Mayday call but it was on a frequency that wasn't working due to the electrical problems or no other flights in the air heard it.
But it's unlikely that no other planes were in the vicinity at the time, she adds.
An electrical failure? Too soon to tell
Flight Safety Foundation's Mr. Voss says it's too early to conclude that there was a catastrophic electrical failure, despite fears expressed by some at Air France that the plane may have been hit with lightning.
"When they have a sophisticated aircraft that relies heavily on electronics like they do in the A330, they [the designers] take that into account," says Voss. "There are things that they do in the aircraft to make sure that if it does get hit, the lightning strike gets conducted around the skin [of the plane] as opposed to through the cabin or the electronics."
Other aviation analysts note that commercial planes have to be certified by the FAA that they can handle a lightning strike.
"Part of the certification requires that whatever happens, it can't result in a catastrophic failure or a loss of the aircraft," says Richard Golaszewski, executive vice president of an aviation consulting firm in Jenkintown, Pa. "They have to show that it's extremely unlikely, and the general rule for 'extremely unlikely' is ten to the minus nine – which is one in a billion." [Editor's note: The original version included an inaccurate calculation and has been corrected.]
Given the few available details about the Air France plane's situation, the commercial A330 pilot says she is surprised by the French authorities's ruling out terrorism or a hijacking.
"Given the fact that nobody heard anything from the pilots [and] they don't know much about the plane – how can they possibly rule all of that out?" she asks.
• Correspondent Andrew Downie contributed to this report from Brazil.