Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tragedy In the Atlantic

Spiegel Online recounts the harrowing final four minutes of Air France Flight 477, from Rio to Paris, which bellyflopped into the Atlantic last June:
Flying through thunderclouds over the Atlantic, more and more ice was hurled at the aircraft. In the process, it knocked out other, far more important, sensors: the pencil-shaped airspeed gauges known as pitot tubes.

One alarm after another lit up the cockpit monitors. One after another, the autopilot, the automatic engine control system, and the flight computers shut themselves off. "It was like the plane was having a stroke," says GĂ©rard Arnoux, the head of the French pilots union SPAF.

The final minutes of flight AF 447 had begun. Four minutes after the airspeed indicator failed, the plane plunged into the ocean, killing all 228 people on board.

The article underscores how catastrophe, however unlikely, can result from the failure of a single instrument, in this case the craft's pitot tubes. I've become a skittish flier in recent years, largely due to a stomach-churning flight I took from New York to DC a couple of years ago. The article hardly calms my nerves, but it's a darkly fascinating read nonetheless.