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Could a Meteor Have Brought Down Air France 447? 884

Posted by kdawson
from the flinging-thunderbolts dept.
niktemadur writes "In light of an Air Comet pilot's report to Air France, Airbus, and the Spanish civil aviation authority that, during a Monday flight from Lima to Lisbon, 'Suddenly, we saw in the distance a strong and intense flash of white light, which followed a descending and vertical trajectory and which broke up in six seconds,' the Cosmic Variance blog team on the Discover Magazine website muses on the question 'What is the probability that, for all flights in history, one or more could have been downed by a meteor?' Taking into account total flight hours and the rate of meteoric activity with the requisite mass to impact on Earth (approximately 3,000 a day), some quick math suggests there may be one in twenty odds of a plane being brought down in the period from 1989 to 2009. Intriguingly, in the aftermath of TWA flight 800's crash in 1996, the New York Times published a letter by Columbia professors Charles Hailey (physics) and David Helfand (astronomy), in which they stated the odds of a meteor-airplane collision for aviation history up to that point: one in ten."
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Could a Meteor Have Brought Down Air France 447?

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  • The suck! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Scutter (18425) on Friday June 05, 2009 @10:40AM (#28222315) Journal

    How much does God hate you to put you in a meteor strike, a plane crash, and a lost-at-sea drowning all in the same day?

  • by justleavealonemmmkay (1207142) on Friday June 05, 2009 @10:41AM (#28222319)

    Yeah, right, Air Comet has no intrest whatsoever to accuse a meteor...

  • Cars (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Krneki (1192201) on Friday June 05, 2009 @10:41AM (#28222323)
    If meteors can be so dangerous to airoplanes, why we don't see them hitting cars or buildings more often?
  • Deceit (Score:5, Funny)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Friday June 05, 2009 @10:41AM (#28222327)

    In light of an Air Comet pilot's report to Air France, Airbus, and the Spanish civil aviation authority that, during a Monday flight from Lima to Lisbon, 'Suddenly, we saw in the distance a strong and intense flash of white light, which followed a descending and vertical trajectory and which broke up in six seconds

    A company called Air Comet is saying they saw a meteor do it?

    Does anyone else smell some blame-shifting?

  • Nobody Knows (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Friday June 05, 2009 @10:44AM (#28222361) Homepage Journal

    So any guess is equally likely/unlikely until there is more information. I think even a lot of the 'debris' they've found is probably not from the jet.
     
    They disengaged the main flight control system because they thought it was flying too fast in the turbulence, or was causing too much passenger discomfort.

    They slowed down to a very narrow margin above stall speed.

    They hit a 100 mph updraft, causing the AOA to go beyond the stall angle.

    They went into a high-speed dive.

    Because they were on manual backup control they could not exert enough force on the controls to recover before Vne or the flutter speed of something was attained.

    Something (wing, tail surface, aileron, spoiler... whatever) tore off.

    The resulting asymmetric forces caused a violent departure from normal flight.

    At a speed probably above Vne, that resulted in the aircraft structure being instantly destroyed.

    This accounts for the fact that there was a an elapsed time of approximately a minute between the first failure messages and the last.

    If it had been a bomb, or simple explosive decompression from another source, that time would have been at most a few seconds, and more likely zero.

    The crew was struggling, all three physically, to pull the aircraft out of a high-speed dive and nobody had a chance to radio what the hell was happening.

    That's my call.

    • Re:Nobody Knows (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Lurker2288 (995635) on Friday June 05, 2009 @11:16AM (#28222887)
      "So any guess is equally likely/unlikely until there is more information. I think even a lot of the 'debris' they've found is probably not from the jet."

      I don't think you really mean this. It's obvious prima facie that some explanations are more likely than others: regular old human error is more likely than a fatal meteorite strike is more likely than an attack by evil space aliens. It'd be more accurate to say that we lack the information to assign realistic probabilities to the different scenarios.

      Pedanticism thus ended.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by AJWM (19027) *

      They disengaged the main flight control system because they thought it was flying too fast in the turbulence, or was causing too much passenger discomfort.
      They slowed down to a very narrow margin above stall speed.
      They hit a 100 mph updraft, causing the AOA to go beyond the stall angle.

      So far, so good -- although "very narrow margin" isn't even necessary given the 100mph updraft, they could have been 100 mph above stall speed and had problems. (Of course one has to factor in that their stall speed when con

  • No (Score:5, Informative)

    by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardprice.gmail@com> on Friday June 05, 2009 @10:45AM (#28222387)
    The Air Comet aircraft was over 2,000km away from where Air France 447 was supposed to be, and the pilots report has been discounted by everyone in the industry.
  • No (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 05, 2009 @10:46AM (#28222399)

    Gravity Brought Down Air France 447.

    We still don't fully understand it yet, but gravity is probably THE number one reason for aircraft crashes.

  • One in twenty? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Friday June 05, 2009 @10:52AM (#28222513) Journal
    I don't know what the assumptions were, but it seems to be an over estimate by orders of magnitude. Space, 3D space is really really huge, unimaginably huge. In WW-II they had to protect the lumbering bombers from the swift fighters. So they tried arming a few bombers with very high number of machine guns. Short Sudeland flying boat was actually called a "Flying Porcupine" because of the number of gun barrels sticking out of it. With guns firing at 1000 to 3000 rounds a minute, with tracer bullets, with trained gunners aiming the guns, they still could not reliably hit the fighters. Both Luftwaffe and RAF and USAF independently had to learn the same lesson with very high cost. Yes, meteors could hit an airplane. But if their calculations shows odds of 1 in 20 for the last 20 year period, I am very sure they have over estimated the odds.
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Friday June 05, 2009 @10:58AM (#28222589) Journal
    I mean, why do we still have to have the black box in the aircraft? Is it possible to radio the parameters continuously and record it on land? Thus even when the plane is lost, the data is safe. What kind of bandwidth is needed to transmit that level of data?
    • by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Friday June 05, 2009 @11:20AM (#28222953) Homepage Journal

      A ton of data is already constantly sent out and recorded, but the amount the black box records is pretty immense and would be pretty expensive. If cockpit voice data was to be included in this I think there would be resistance from pilot unions.

      Tack on the fact that very few people die this way compared to many other ways - it would make more sense to put cameras and microphones in operating and hospital rooms than beam everything live from a cockpit to ground. (The hospital thing is one example- there are many others. Say cameras and microphones in every automobile.)

    • ADS-B (Score:4, Interesting)

      by sponga (739683) on Friday June 05, 2009 @02:41PM (#28225967)

      UPS uses this system on all their planes, not only for air safety but also for tracking.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ADS-B [wikipedia.org]

      Pilots and air traffic control love the system, it allows them to see visually where everyone is located/speed/atlitude/GPS and all broadcasting is done from the plane to ground based radar.

      Doesn't take much bandwidth at all, as they can use the VHF channel, 978 MHz UAT and another mode.

  • by UttBuggly (871776) on Friday June 05, 2009 @11:19AM (#28222941)

    Nothing I've read or know from flying in the Air Force and working at the USAF Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB indicates this was a collision....with a meteor or anything else.

    I personally believe the aircraft encountered weather conditions that Airbus never tested against or thought possible. 100+ mph updrafts, as some have reported, would definitely cause control issues.

    By that, if the plane was on autopilot or simply "in trim" and suddenly went nose up, it would have required immediate and CORRECT actions to handle. Having recently read the transcripts of the commuter crash, where the pilots were inattentive, then compounded a stall problem by pitching up, I think the real cause was a combination of events, including pilot error.

    If a lightning strike caused electrical and control problems while the pilot(s) were trying to recover from a sudden attitude change, they were screwed. Going into a flat spin at 35000+ feet at 400 knots would have ripped the airframe to pieces. Given the reported debris field, and no apparent evidence of explosion, I'd bet that's what likely happened; unexpected event combined with control/system problems resulted in an unrecoverable spin and the aircraft came apart well before impact.

  • by gnatman64 (688246) on Friday June 05, 2009 @11:24AM (#28223009) Homepage
    Phil Plait has just put up a blog post explaining that it's probably a lot less likely than than these other guys have made it seem. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/06/05/flying-the-meteoric-skies/ [discovermagazine.com]
  • by Nibbler(C) (574581) on Friday June 05, 2009 @11:33AM (#28223147)
    As exciting as meteor or motherships would be, I still think that simplest reason hold true in this case. An ex-Air Force weatherman, gives quite a low down on the weathersystem directly on AF447's path at the time the last messages came. http://www.weathergraphics.com/tim/af447/ [weathergraphics.com]
  • by Ogive17 (691899) on Friday June 05, 2009 @12:36PM (#28224195)
    For those following the story you might have already read they believe the debris they picked up is not from the Air France flight. Is it possible there was a mid-air collision with an unregistered plane/jet?
  • by SigNick (670060) on Friday June 05, 2009 @12:41PM (#28224269)

    Here you can see the last automatically transmitted ACARS messages of AF447:
    http://img32.imageshack.us/img32/7547/acarsaf447d.png [imageshack.us]

    Personally, I think this incident was caused by a combination of factors.
    ALL speculations tread on thin air before the CVR and FDR are recovered, but based on current data I would QUESS:
    -it is a dark, stormy night with no horizon or any landmarks visible
    -160km/h updraft brings moist air to a much higher flight level than usual
    -this causes sudden icing of the pitot tubes
    -this causes the flight computer to think that the plane is in danger of stalling, and it lowers the nose automatically
    -the crew switches auto-pilot and flight envelope protection partially off, or a (positive) lightning strike disables them
    -the crew has no good idea about the true speed and orientation of the plane
    -inside the cumulonimbus' horrible gusts the crew over-stresses the composite flight controls while fighting turbulence
    -the place exceeds it's maximum speed and/or structural load (G-) limits
    -two-three minutes later the agony of the 228 souls on board finally ends as the slowly disintegrating plane hits the sea near the speed of sound, instantly ripping them to stamp-sized bits

    Here's more detailed speculation about possible causes and a crude analysis, taken from Usenet:

    1. Terrorism or other malicious use of explosives

    A bomb explodes in the cargo hold, crippling the aircraft's control systems or starting a structural break-up that eventually leads to loss of control.

    Supportive evidence: According to Wikipedia, a bomb threat had been made on an earlier flight. Lack of communications from the flight crew indicates either a sudden event or something which lead to significant problems that the crew had to focus on. This would be consistent with the effects of a bomb. The automatic messages about computer system failures sent by the aircraft could be interpreted either as indications that the aircraft's movements have exceeded the limits that the systems can handle, or as indications about direct damage to the systems. A flash of light has been seen by other aircraft in the area.

    Evidence against: While terrorist organizations exist both in France and Brazil, there has been no recent activity. No organization has claimed responsibility for the act. There is no specific evidence about a bomb. Nothing is known about any individuals or organizations who would have non-terrorism related reasons for malicious acts. It seems too big of a coincidence that a bomb would go off at the same time as the aircraft flies through very rough weather. Finally, what we know about the sequence of ACARS messages indicates that loss of cabin pressure was the last message in the sequence. This appears to rule out an explosion, unless it was contained in the hull and only damaged internal structures and components. This seems unlikely. The flash of light was apparently seen from too far to be caused by AF 447 related problems.

    Open questions: Where are the cargo holds that are used to carry the passengers' luggage? Are they physically close to the computer and navigation systems that ACARS messages reported as failing? And obviously, physical evidence would be useful.

    Verdict: Can most likely be ruled out

    2. Explosion or other rapid, harmful reaction from the cargo

    The sequence of events is as in the terrorism theory.

    Supportive evidence: The sequence of events fits this theory, as it does the terrorism theory. The cargo might have shifted at the time of turbulence, initiating the reaction.

    Evidence against: See the evidence regarding the malicious use of explosives. In addition, there is no information that the cargo could have contained something harmful.

    Open questions: More information is needed about what was in the cargo, and who cargo was taken from.

    Verdict: Can most likely be ruled out

    3. Fire

    Fire starts in cargo hold, in sys

  • by cylcyl (144755) on Friday June 05, 2009 @01:19PM (#28224851)

    Proof is in the video [youtube.com], ~36s mark

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