Air France Flight 447 Documentary on BBC

by Jonathan on May 31, 2010

The BBC has aired a documentary about Flight 447 on May 30. Currently, this documentary is only viewable if you live in the UK. It is called Lost: The Mystery of Flight 447. Since I’m in the United States, I do not have access.

If you live in the UK, you can check out Lost: The Mystery of Flight 447 on the BBC’s iPlayer website.

If anyone knows if this will ever air in the US, or if you know how it can be viewed outside of the UK, please share.

The Daily Mail also posted a story about the documentary. You can view it here or read it below..

Thanks to Andrew for this information.

As the jet flew through the dead of night, most passengers slept. They included a mother and her five-year-old son, and an 11-year-old boy returning to his boarding school in Bristol.

Alexander Bjoroy had spent an idyllic half-term break with his expatriate family in Brazil. His parents, Robin and Jane, had seen him safely to the airport, then waved him off as he returned to Bristol’s £5,970-a-term Clifton College.

One couple on the flight, a young doctor and lawyer, had married only the day before. After a wedding reception in a Rio nightclub, they had boarded the plane to begin their honeymoon.

It was June 1, 2009, and this was Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris – a routine international flight.

In the early hours of that fateful morning, however, something dreadful occurred. Air France Flight 447 made its final radio transmission – and then all contact was lost.

The flight simply vanished. On the ground, French officials told desperate relatives: ‘We wait, we pray, we will know more this afternoon.’

So began one of the most catastrophic and troubling air disasters of modern times, a crash that killed 228 people from 32 nations. Five Britons, including 11-year-old Alexander, died.

Fernando Schnabl was waiting for his wife, Christine, and their little son Philipe to land. Travelling separately in order to use up their Airmiles, he had kissed his wife goodbye in Rio de Janiero and then boarded a different plane to Paris with Celine, their three-year-old daughter.

Landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris the next morning, Fernando was looking forward to seeing his wife and small son again.

But, as his plane taxied towards its stand, a passenger in the next seat switched on his mobile phone and said that a flight from Rio was missing.

‘Then he said it was Air France and I was very scared, ‘ says Fernando.

‘And when the crew called my name, I knew something really bad had happened. The way they treated me with so much concern, but not wanting to tell me anything, left me with no hope at all.’

Staff led Fernando and his daughter to an airport lounge, where other distraught relatives were gathering.
Alexander Bjoroy’s family learned of the crash at their home in Brazil, and broke the painful news to his younger sister, Charlotte. What had happened to their treasured child?

Hampering the search was the fact that no one knew the precise spot where the jet had disappeared. It had left Brazilian airspace, but had not radioed its next position.

In the hours and days after the crash, officials at Air France began to study a series of error messages sent by the plane’s automatic communications system via satellite, which indicated that it had experienced ‘multiple technical failures’ in its last minutes in the air.

What had gone wrong? An awful five days later, the shattered wreckage of Flight 447 was discovered, floating in the Atlantic 750 miles off the coast of Brazil. All 228 passengers and crew were dead.
Despite a £24 million search operation, the all-important black boxes could not be recovered.

No one was able to explain what had happened. To the anger of relatives, French investigators will not make a final report on the disaster until the black boxes are found.

But now, for the first time, the story behind this devastating air disaster can be told. A BBC2 documentary, Lost: The Mystery Of Flight 447, to be screened tomorrow night, has brought together leading aviation experts to conduct a forensic investigation into the crash.

Amazingly, they have been able to pinpoint exactly what happened on that fateful night, even though the aircraft left barely a trace when it crashed.

Furthermore, they are able to answer the question: could it happen again?

Tony Cable worked for the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch for 32 years. He was the senior investigator on the fatal Concorde crash in Paris ten years ago, and on the Lockerbie bombing.

‘The normal way of investigating an accident is to look at the crash site. In this case, though, there’s only a small amount of floating wreckage,’ he says.

‘The flight data and cockpit voice recorders are clearly at the bottom of the ocean with the rest of the wreckage – a very, very big handicap to the investigation.’

How, then, did the team begin? First, they eliminated the possibility of a terrorist attack.

‘The possibilities that immediately come to mind would be a bomb or a structural break-up,’ says Cable.
He drafted in John Cox, one of the world’s leading aviation safety consultants, and they pieced together the recovered aircraft parts to find out what forces acted on them in the last moments of flight.

This method was used to solve the mystery of TWA flight 800, which crashed off the coast of New York in 1996. By examining fragments of that fuselage, experts determined that faulty wiring had caused a fuel explosion.

Engineer Jim Wildey is a veteran of that investigation. Looking at the recovered parts from Flight 447, he made the first major breakthrough: the plane showed signs of a highspeed impact with the water.
‘The nose cone has been flattened, crushed and torn,’ he says. ‘This is a very clear sign that this piece was on the airplane when it hit the water.’

A floor section from the cargo compartment also revealed that the plane was level at the point of impact, and hit the water at speed.

It appears, then, that flight 447 didn’t explode in mid-air; it simply fell out of the sky. But if there was no explosion, what did happen?

The A330 is a jewel in the crown of European aerospace giant, Airbus. It had previously been considered extremely safe, with 700 in service around the world and not a single passenger fatality before Flight 447.
The plane uses a state-of-the-art fly-by-wire computerised control system, where mechanical levers are replaced by electronics. When the autopilot is switched on, the plane flies itself.

‘Ninety-nine per cent of the time when you’re sitting as a passenger flying at 35,000 feet, the autopilot is flying the aeroplane,’ says Captain Martin Alder, former chairman of the British Airline Pilots’ Flights Safety Group.

Using Air Traffic Control transcripts, Cable has been able to piece together the last devastating moments in the cockpit.

He believes that flight 447 would have been on autopilot as it headed out over the Atlantic, with Captain Marc Dubois, 58, and his co-pilot standing by. Three hours out from Rio de Janeiro, Flight 447 was still on track.
The last crew conversation with on-ground controllers was routine. The co-pilot called out the plane’s position using the internationally recognised phonic alphabet: ‘Charlie Papa Hotel Quebec.’

But at 1.35am, all radio communications ceased. But for another 35 minutes, Flight 447’s computer continued to send out automatic position reports by satellite to the Air France base at Charles de Gaulle airport.

A last reading showed a location at 2.10am, 70 miles from where the wreckage was discovered.

So what brought down the plane? Looking through meteorological data, the team discovered that there was a thunderstorm in the area at the time. But why would experienced pilots fly into a storm?

‘The idea that a pilot would fly through a thunderstorm – no, absolutely not,’ says aviation safety expert John Cox.

Several other flights that night took the same route as Flight 447, but the pilots made detours of up to 90 miles to avoid the storm system, which towered to an altitude of 50,000ft.

The investigating team believes that a smaller storm in front of the larger weather front confused the flight’s radar system, so that the crew did not see the thunderstorm coming.

It meant they had no choice but to ride out the turbulence. The pilot would have slowed down the engines – the standard method for flying through such conditions.

At 2.10am – the plane’s last known position – it appears that Flight 447 entered a rapidly developing storm system that its radar detected too late. A little more than four minutes later, everyone on board was dead.
So what happened in those critical intervening minutes? Just after 2.10am, the flight computer sent a torrent of automatic fault messages to Air France in Paris.

Called by one pilot ‘the last will and testament of the aircraft’, these messages show that Flight 447 suffered 24 critical faults in just four minutes and 16 seconds.

The first message showed that the autopilot had switched itself off, so the pilot had to take manual control. Then the systems controlling air speed and altitude failed.

In the cockpit, instrumental display screens would have gone blank, and flight-control computers would have died. One by one, the most critical safety features in the cockpit failed.

‘It must have been a very busy and confusing situation on the flight deck,’ says Cable.

It is a harrowing image, indeed. The cockpit would have filled with a multitude of audio and visual alarms, while the pilots desperately fought a losing battle to control the aircraft and keep it in the air as it was buffeted by a gigantic thunderstorm.

A final, ominous warning was sent by the plane to Paris: the Advisory Cabin Vertical Speed message, which means that the aircraft was descending at a high rate.

This last, terrifying message came just before Flight 447 and its passengers hit the water at hundreds of miles an hour. But what could have caused all the vital automatic systems to malfunction at once?

It appears that the three pitot tubes (speed sensors) failed simultaneously. It could be that they were unable to cope with the storm conditions facing Flight 447.

Accident investigators believe that super-cooled water in the clouds – well below freezing, but too pure to turn into ice – could have disabled the pitot probes.

Cable has discovered that since 2003, there have been 36 incidents involving frozen pitot tube on A330s or the similar A340s.

Indeed, in 2007, Airbus recommended a refit of all A330s with upgraded pitots. Flight 447 had not yet been refitted.

With no airspeed data, Flight 447’s automatic systems would have collapsed one by one – which is exactly what happened.

It seems that in total darkness, and in the midst of a storm, the crew were forced to retake manual control of the plane.

John Cox explains how the pilots would have been bombarded with confusing information, saying: ‘That crew faced an almost unheard of series of failures, one right behind the other.’

The most immediate danger was that the airplane would stall, which would lead to a sudden, uncontrollable descent (it had already slowed suddenly to cope with the turbulence).

Cox says: ‘There is a good possibility that at some point in the last four minutes, it did stall.’

An unlucky series of events caused the accident, then, culminating in the automated systems failing and engines stalling.

Used to flying with high levels of automation, it seems the pilots did not have the skills to recover the situation.

Tragically, from the way the airline hit the water – nose up, with wings level – it appears that the crew may have come close to saving their passengers’ lives.

It is likely they were recovering the situation but ran out of time, and suffered a second, and this time terminal, stall.

More than that, we will probably never know.

The airplane’s black boxes, recording the last moments in the cockpit, stopped transmitting location signals after one month. Efforts to find them using imaging sonar continue.

So could such a tragedy happen again? Cable certainly believes that Flight 447 raises some vital issues for airlines.

‘It has raised the question about whether the situation is actually being made worse by the increase in automation, whereby crews don’t get a great deal of opportunity to manually fly the aircraft,’ he says.

Airbus has also been criticised for not yet replacing all pitot probes in its fleet. In the face of new evidence, it maintains that even if they fail, pilots should be able to operate the plane.

A terrifying technical disaster, then, and one that led to a very human tragedy.

Alexander Bjoroy’s parents held a memorial service for him last year, paying tribute to their son, saying: ‘The world was his home. Alexander embraced other cultures and respected them greatly.

‘He loved to travel and see and experience new places and people. We were very fortunate to share so many marvellous experiences together in his short life.’

The body of Swedish national Christine Schnabl was one of 51 recovered, but her five-year-old son Philipe was never found. She was not wearing a life jacket – it seems there was no time.

Her husband, Fernando, is preparing an album of pictures and cuttings to give to their daughter Celine when she is old enough to understand. One day, he hopes, he will be able to give her more answers.

For now, however, he simply tells her that her mother and brother have gone to a ‘good place in the sky’.

Article Source: Daily Mail

  • Andrew Boyce

    Hi Jonathan,

    I'm glad you got my post as the contact section didn't appear to be working properly.

    I'm guessing the BBC iPlayer isn't available outside of the UK? The documentary has just been uploaded there for viewing.

    It wasn't a particularly revealing documentary and certainly didn't tell us anything we don't know already. There were a few aviation experts talking about the probable causes and how the flight would have gone down.

    This updated extract from Wikipedia provides a useful synopsis;

    "On 30 May 2010 BBC Two broadcast Lost: The Mystery of Flight 447, a one hour documentary detailing an independent investigation into the crash employing the skills of an expert pilot, an expert accident investigator, an aviation meteorologist and an aircraft structural engineer. Using the available evidence and information, without the black boxes, a critical chain of events was postulated;

    -flying into a immense thunderstorm which had been hidden on the aircraft weather radar by a smaller nearer storm.
    - reducing aircraft speed to anticipate impending turbulence.
    - configuring the aircraft to avoid a stall by trimming aircraft pitch with the elevators, but not noticing that the Autothrust system reduced aircraft speed (without corresponding thrust lever movement).
    - simultaneous failure of all three pitot tubes due to supercooled water very rapidly forming ice.
    - aircrew being unable to interpret a large number of flight deck failure alerts caused by the loss of air data.
    - suffering a catastrophic loss of altitude due to a stall.
    - falling uncontrollably to the sea and breaking up on impact.

    There was no real reference in the documentary to the actual passengers on board the flight.

  • Geraldo

    Anyone have a torrent of the documentary?

  • Ronald

    Here you can find the documentary

  • Ronald

    Here you can find the documentary:

  • Sully

    Interesting documentary. If only they could find those black boxes…..

  • Rami

    Not even sure where to get started, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on a few things, particularly the pitot tubes and the reliance on fly-by-wire and Autopilot.

    I am not an aviation expert at all however it seems the fly by wire which is operated by a joystick reduces the workload on the pilots rather than having to put in a lot of physical work compared with the old models. However from what I saw and of course I probably am not understanding it to the fullest. The fly by wire is giving the control a very light-feel, which might be dangerous at times, would it help to at least have some resistance forcing you to put in some physical work? For example if I am driving and hit the breaks, I would rely in the resistance of the breaks to know they are working and how hard I am pushing, it gives me a feel that allows me to gauge it. However if the breaks were simply a push button I am sure it would work, however if I were to feel nothing, how would I tell from the feel whether or not the breaks are working?

    Again I might be just totally confused, but perhaps someone here can provide a more clear picture for me.

    Now it also does mention that in just a matter of seconds you can lose a lot of altitude and it is up to the pilots at times as the last line of defence to adjust. If that is the case it might explain why there was no mayday call, since every second counts and in all probability its better to try to get control of the plane rather than waste 30-40 seconds sending a distress signal. Since from what I gather from that documentary in about 40 seconds you can lose about 20,000 in altitude, Or did I interpret it wrong?

  • Jonathan

    From Ireland here: (three female doctors from Ireland on board, very sad).. .
    I thought the documentary certainly put together a credible hypothesis for what could have happened the plane. But realistically that is all that it is .. a hypothesis. I have a few questions:

    1. Why are they so quick to rule out mid air breakup? They only have vertical stabilizer, nosecone, and a small bit of fuselage…. Yet they conclude absolutely that the plane was fully intact. Is it not possible that horizontal stabilizer / wing / other parts of fuselage could have ripped off in the storm?
    2. Why didnt they call mayday. I know it would have been of no use to them being so far out to sea, but is it not standard procedure?
    3. Why does the documentary ignore the evidence of the damage to the cadavers found floating on the water. Is this to be sensitive to the relatives?

    Hope they find the black boxes, even if only to satisfy my own morbid curiousity.

  • Rami

    Hey Jonathan! You know what I was kinda thinking the same thing. The pathologist at first did suggest a mid air break up. Since then, we haven't heard from the Physicians regarding that. But I agree with you, Medical examination and evidence from that end should be considered to help piece together what went on.

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