Titanic team locate missing Air France plane
04 April 2011
04 April 2011
The mysterious crash of an Air France airliner in 2009 may be a step nearer to being solved: wreckage of the aircraft has finally been located on the mid-Atlantic seabed by a trio of robotic search submarines operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). It means investigators may finally be able to find the plane's flight recorders and find out why the 228 people on board lost their lives.
Flight AF447, an Airbus A330 twin-engined jet flying from Rio to Paris, inexplicably entered a series of violent tropical storm cells in in mid-Atlantic in the early hours of 1 June 2009 - when all other air traffic was avoiding the storms. The plane never emerged - and wreckage and bodies of passengers and crew were found afloat on the ocean in following days.
Why the plane entered the storm system, and what downed it, is a mystery - and data on its cockpit voice and flight data recorders may be able to reveal the answers. But the plane's flight recorders were not recovered from the floating wreckage and three prior submarine searches organised by the BEA, the French air accident investigator, have failed to locate them.
But as New Scientist revealed in late February, the submarine robots WHOI is using in the BEA's latest search are far more agile than in previous searches - and use a novel sonar image mosaicing technique honed during WHOI's 2010 mapping of the complete debris field of the RMS Titanic. The way the sonar image stripes are stitched together reduces the risk that detail will be lost where the images are joined, says WHOI project leader David Gallo.
It seems to have worked. On 3 April the BEA announced that pieces of an aircraft had not only been found in the circa 4000-metre-deep search area - a similar depth to Titanic - but had also been positively identified as belonging to the doomed Air France Airbus A330.
Peter Neenan, lawyer for one group of AF447 victims' families at Stewarts Law in London, is cautiously optimistic that the finding will lead to the location of the flight recorders - and some answers. "The families will be waiting anxiously for further updates from the BEA," he says.