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Experts say don't jump to conclusions on Air France crash

Information from "black boxes" and other sources could help prevent future accidents.

By Staff writer / June 6, 2009

The French marine institute, Ifreme, sent The Pourquoi Pas research vessel to help in the search for the missing Air France flight.

Olivier Dugornay/Ifremer/HO/AP

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As each day passes and another theory emerges to explain the disappearance of Air France Flight 447, the urgency increases to find the flight data recorders -- or black boxes -- which hold critical and concrete clues to the mystery.

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The Airbus 330-200 left for a routine flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris last Monday. Four hours later over the Atlantic Ocean it ran into a bank of thunderstorms and then was gone.

First speculation centered on lightning or turbulence as the cause. The latest centers on small speed sensors that may have iced up, causing the plane to register incorrect speeds. French investigators today confirmed that Air France had not replaced those sensors, called pitot tubes, despite a recommendation from the manufacturer.

But Paul-Louis Arslanian, who heads the French investigative agency, cautioned against jumping to conclusions. The A330-200 is designed to fly with multiple component failures, he says. And there were 24 error messages sent automatically from the plane to Air France headquarters in the flight’s last few minutes, including references to the aircraft's speed readings and autopilot.

Not enough information

Aviation experts say those messages do provide clues and may have relevance, but they have to be put into larger a context and there is nowhere near enough information to do that.

“The consensus among the true experts is that speculation at this point is unwarranted and dangerous in the sense that it can be misleading,” says Richard Healing, an aviation safety consultant and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“There is no concrete evidence that eliminates the possibility of a bomb. There is no concrete evidence that eliminates the possibility of…an on board electrical fire that caused a loss of control of the aircraft by burning through control mechanisms. And there’s no conclusive evidence that there was an in-flight break up -- and none that indicates there wasn’t an in-flight break up,” he says. “So we’re very much at the point where we need to recover the flight data recorders.”

The problem with speculation, says Mr. Healing, is that it can lead people to jump to wrong conclusions, which then leads to political pressure to investigate one possibility more than another.

Lessons from TWA Flight 800

For instance, when TWA Flight 800 exploded over Long Island in 1996, initial speculation centered on a terrorist attack or a missile strike. In part, that’s because of testimony from more than 700 witnesses, some of whom believed they saw what looked like a flare heading toward the plane before it broke apart.

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