Monday, June 1, 2009

CNN was listening to me at breakfast?

Shortly after I said to my wife (concerning the missing A330) "it was probably hit by lightning", CNN said they had 'heard' via their global reporting network that it could have been caused by lightning. Were they listening at my kitchen table?

Oh, and happy 29th, CNN. They went on the air on 1 June 1980.

Seriously: The initial scatter-brained real-time journalism of the news networks included an NBC short list of possible causes that included "dare I say, terrorism" but did not include electrical failure. Then I saw a weather radar map on CNN (where they were pointing to the lack of storms in the Cape Verde Islands area, a hurricane breeding ground later in the hurricane season that started today, because the intertropical convergence zone was still well south of that area), and I thought "lightning". I know these newest aircraft are highly electronic, and I know what lightning did to the lightning protection system of a HAM that lives across the street from us, so 1 + 1 make 4 to me - particularly when the search area is in the area of the current convergence zone, where there are many storms developing.

By the way, as interviews go, I'd really rather hear my brother's thoughts about the possible effects of a massive electrical failure than those of some US Air captain interviewed on CNN.

I'm sure that a modern "glass" aircraft like this will do things the captain doesn't know about, particularly a new aircraft. He was going on about what would happen if the crew made a distress call, but the only reports are of some automatic BSOD 'panic' transmissions from the electronic control system itself. I', sure my brother knows lots more than any pilot does about what those systems do.

Yo, Bro, can you really fly one of these things if you lose all of the electrical systems? I've heard that the backup system for a modern fighter plane is the ejection seat, but do these latest commercial aircraft have direct mechanical connections to the flight controls and engines as well as a purely "classic" turn and bank indicator and compass? Can the engines operate if an electronic fuel management system (a successor to the one you worked on in your very first job) got toasted? Or do you have some equipment on the A330 that precludes your discussing the matter?

I believe them when they say they test these aircraft for lightning strikes, but so did the company that designed the highly sophisticated (and fully insured) arrestor system my neighbor had - yet everything from his computers to his electronic doorbell was destroyed. I have little doubt that there is 'lightning' and then there is LIGHTNING.

Finally, what really puzzles me is the vague nature of the search area. They must know exactly when they got the 'panic' messages from the control system, and they must have a very good idea where the plane was at the time and how far it could have traveled if were in a totally "dead stick" situation. But I would imagine the pessimism is due to the lack of any satellite emergency signals (they do have those on the life rafts of trans-oceanic airlines, don't they). And I would imagine that the very slow rate of information flow is a result of a State Owned airline not wanting to say anything bad about an aircraft built by a State Owned manufacturer.


mareserinitatis said...

My MS advisor worked on the lightning in planes problem. Everyone always assumes that lightning flows along the fuselage...but that's not necessarily the least conductive path on the plane.

So whenever I fly through a storm, I'm always scared to death. Everyone laughs, but I've heard too many scary stories. (There is a bad side to knowing about EMI.)

Doctor Pion said...

It would appear (thank you Wiki) that this Airbus model is pure fly-by-wire and does not have any backup systems that would allow the pilot to fly the plane after damage to the computer systems. It might not even have a mechanical (analog) artificial horizon.

It would also appear that the aircraft makes significant use of composite materials. I don't have to explain this to the commenter above, but omposites, unlike aluminum, do not conduct electricity and thus alter the way electro-magnetic pulses flow around and through the aircraft.

The Thomas said...

Looking at the weather data for Flight 449, we see that they were flying through really hellish conditions. Any number of tings could have destroyed that aircraft.

Even though the recorders are certified to 25K feet deep, you still have to find them before the battery runs out on the pingger. Mid-Atlantic is a bad place to recover a data recorder.

If you look at the weather conditions description, you will note that the ACARS data places the aircraft on a different track from their flight plan, likely because they were trying to get around the worst of the storm.

See the following for a discussion of why improving ACARS wouldn't have given enough information to locate the aircraft after the mishap.

Doctor Pion said...

I didn't read his comment that way, particularly as the automated messages from the plane didn't use expensive satellite time.

What I don't understand is why they don't train pilots in the simulator to give the kind of feedback that test pilots provide. They could have been heard over radio and at least said whether it was lightning or something else.

And I'm waiting to see where the plane ended up relative to the "power out, airframe broken" message point that shows in that analysis of the weather. Did it glide down, covering 40 miles?