Air France 447 - Expert: Investigators blind without wreckage

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John Roberts - Anchor, CNN's American Morning
Filed under: Transportation
Fmr. NTSB Managing Director says investigaors are blind without plane's wreckage.
Fmr. NTSB Managing Director says investigaors are blind without plane's wreckage.

The Brazilian air force is now saying that debris picked up Thursday near where officials believe Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean is not from the plane. Officials are saying it’s “sea trash” and not part of the jet that apparently went down with 228 people on board.

Peter Goelz is the former Managing Director of the National Transportation Safety Board. He spoke to John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Friday.

John Roberts: Are you surprised to hear the news that what officials thought was the wreckage of Flight 447 turned out to be just sea trash?

Peter Goelz: Well, I thought the announcement was a little premature. But it’s very disappointing because it really sets the investigation back in terms of searching for the flight data recorder and the voice recorder. They don’t know where to start.

Roberts: So they’re back to square one again. What about the other pieces of debris they saw floating in the ocean – pieces of metal, bales of wire? Will that give them some idea of where the plane when down?

Goelz: The longer time goes on, the further away from the actual crash site the debris floats. It will be terribly challenging to find where to start the search for the data recorders and the clock is ticking. The batteries on the locator devices attached to the black boxes have a limited life span – just 30 days.

Roberts: In your experience, will they continue to work in the depth of water that this plane might be in by looking at the ocean floor? Depending on if it rolled in a canyon or sitting on top of a sea mount, it could be anywhere from 2,000 feet deep to 14,000 feet deep.

Goelz: The depth of water is challenging but it doesn’t eliminate it. We’ve recovered boxes as deep as 6,000 or 7,000 feet. We recovered debris from as much as 10,000 feet.

Roberts: Looking at the electrical malfunction signals sent out from the aircraft, do you believe there’s a chance that so many systems went down that these pilots were flying blind for a time? Flying blind at night is particularly difficult.

Goelz: These messages sent out automatically are very intriguing. First of all, we don’t know how many there were. We’ve had different reports on it. But very clearly, the French investigative agency, the BEA, is interested in this. And that announcement that Airbus sent out late yesterday with the approval of the BEA indicates there’s some concern that there was a faulty speed indicator on the aircraft. That could really be disastrous. And it’s happened before. The speed is determined in an aircraft by two devices facing forward called the Pitot tubes and then they have static port and that’s how the speed and altitude is determined. If they’re malfunctioning, it can give a false read into the cockpit that can be misinterpreted and a disaster can follow.

Roberts: I read one report there might have been ice buildup on the tip of the tubes that helps to measure air speed. There were a couple of recent incidents on that type of aircraft in which there was a mismatch between the computers reading speed indicators and the computer went with the one that was reading the low speed and put the plane into a dive. Air France is saying that this is different equipment on the aircraft than the aircraft that went into a dive. Is it possible that they suffered the same problem and given the fact that the pilots were having all of the conflicting reports that they could have gone into a fatal dive that was so fast that it ripped the aircraft apart?

Goelz: Airbus has said it’s a different manufacturer of the unit. I’m sure the BEA will look at that carefully. The real issue is, were these signals correct in how they were received over a period of time? Or were they all blasted out at one time, which would reflect a catastrophic event at altitude?

Roberts: On that point, can we rule out foul play?

Goelz: You cannot rule out foul play without the physical evidence. When we investigated the accident of TWA flight 800 off of the coast of Long Island, we spent a lot of time, the NTSB, examining the wreckage to see if there were any signs of a bomb or even a missile strike. We found no physical evidence. That’s the way you can eliminate terrorism. That’s the only way.

Roberts: So until you find the wreckage, you’re really blind in all of this, right?

Goelz: You really are.

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