Flight AF 447

23’ 27”





ABC Ultimo Centre

700 Harris Street Ultimo

NSW 2007 Australia


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NSW 2001 Australia

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Fax:    61 2 8333 4859




More planes and more people are flying internationally than ever before so it’s perhaps not surprising that those aboard Air France flight 447 from Brazil to France hailed from more than 30 nations. From Brazil to France and beyond families - some armed with lawyers - are crying out for an explanation. What happened?



Investigators will draw conclusions from the meagre evidence that’s emerged but it can’t ever be more that informed speculation. The real answers are locked in the Airbus A330’s black box flight recorder at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.



Why, in a satellite saturated, digitally streamed world, do airlines and aviation regulators rely on devices hatched in the middle of last century that can disappear into the deep or be damaged and destroyed.



“It’s absurd that air safety depends on black boxes which sometimes cannot be recovered or if they are recovered then the data cannot be properly transcribed because the boxes are damaged beyond analysis.” JAMES HEALY-PRATT AVIATION LAWYER



The ABC’s Investigative Unit reporter Andrew Fowler joins Foreign Correspondent to examine the flaws in AF447 challenge the aircraft manufacturer Airbus Industrie and to hear the many stories of anguish and loss from the international community of people grieving the loss of loved ones and yearning for information.




“Some families lost four relatives. Some lost their parents so now it’s grandparents or cousins who must look after them. That’s so many families who were broken that day.” CHRISTOPHE GUILLOT-NOEL (who lost a brother)



Fowler explores the evidence that’s emerged from coronial examinations in Brazil, the smattering of data from the ill-fated flight and whether or not Air France, Airbus and aviation regulators acted quickly and judiciously to replace air-speed equipment on the plane that was known to be systemically unreliable.



With more of us flying there are some important lessons to emerge from the AF447 catastrophe but without the flight recorders, huge chunks of the puzzle are missing.


Rio beach shots

FOWLER:  For the carefree of Rio de Janeiro, and there are many, it’s all fun, sun, surf and sand along the famous stretches of Copacabana and Ipanema. 





Nelson driving

FOWLER:  Nelson Marinho also used to enjoy the scenic drive along here – until he lost his son.  Now the ocean brings with it waves of sadness.



NELSON MARINHO:  What I feel now is that my son didn’t die.  That’s what I feel. His death isn’t final.  At the moment I can’t believe he’s dead. 



FOWLER:  He’s a father wrestling with acceptance.  So little is known about his son’s death.  His body hasn’t been found.   There’s next to no information.



NELSON MARINHO:  What I believe is that he had experience with the sea.  I may even believe that he survived…he’s on an island. 


Cristo Redentor statue/ Rio shots



Nelson driving

NELSON MARINHO:  [In car]  We’re here in Avenida Atlantica, in Copacabana, going towards Ipanema.   



FOWLER:  He’s taking us to meet many more people just like him, people who lost loved ones to what is an extremely rare event, the crash of a giant international airliner.


Nelson with families

In this case one enveloped in mystery, the crash of Air France Flight 447. Here at this gathering in Ipanema we meet Alexandra Salvador who lost the man she


Photo. Alexandra and Dreyer

was going to marry, a Swiss diplomat, Ronald Dreyer.

ALEXANDRA SALVADOR:  On the first day of the accident I thought,



I hope the next two months go really quickly - and I’ll get better.  But we’re worse… we’re worse.


Sylvain with photo album

FOWLER:  For Sylvain Owondo, it was his father Joseph, a diplomat from Gabon, who perished on the flight. 



Photo. Sylvain and father

I miss him a lot.



When I see the photos and remember him I feel very sad.


Photo. Adriana

FOWLER:  Daniela Henrique’s sister Adriana, was travelling to France on holiday.  Her death has devastated the family. 



DANIELA HENRIQUE:  Getting home everyday - we used to live together - and not seeing her… one day she’s not there… and the next day, and the next. 


Photo. Adriana

We thought that with time it would get better


Daniela and families

but it’s been getting worse because she’s not there, she’s not there, she’s never ever there.

FOWLER:  At meetings like this, and there are other groups in Germany and France, you begin to get a sense of the scale of loss and heartbreak when catastrophe strikes a large passenger jet.  There’s also a growing catalogue of questions and increasingly anger and frustration.


Nelson with families

Nelson Marinho is co-ordinating this group of Brazilian families and vows he won’t rest until he gets answers.



NELSON MARINHO:  Whether it was Air France’s fault or the fault of the manufacturer, my fight is with Air France.  They took my son’s life… 228 lives. 



And I am committed to this fight.  I’ll only stop when they take responsibility, or when I die.


Plane landing in rain




Trip to airport in rain

FOWLER:  It’s May the 31st this year, mid winter in Rio de Janeiro.  Two hundred and twenty eight passengers and crew are making their way to the airport.  They’re bound for Paris on the Air France evening flight.  The plane is late. It will finally take off at 10.30 pm, nearly half an hour behind schedule. 


Recife tower/Cockpit

Music/Air traffic control



FOWLER:  Suddenly in the early hours of the following morning, the Air France Airbus disappears. 


Searching shots of ocean




FOWLER:  Any notion of a rescue effort quickly gave way to a salvage operation.  A few fragments of the plane were found floating on the surface, but where precisely had it come down?  And with time ticking on its viability, where was the equipment that may be the only way of finding out what happened?  The black box – the all important flight data and cockpit voice recorder.


Healy-Pratt. Super:
James Healy-Pratt
Aviation lawyer

JAMES HEALY PRATT: Without the black boxes it’s going to be difficult to say with any degree of real certainty what the actual chain of events were that led to Air France 447 going down.


Recife. Bodies being unloaded and taken to morgue




FOWLER:  Eventually corpses began to surface.  They’d be brought nearly a thousand kilometres back to the Brazilian coast and the town of Recife. 


Recife morgue

Air France 447 had soared overhead the Recife morgue, now as coronial staff examined the 50 or so badly decomposed bodies, some vital clues emerged about the final moments of the plane’s life.


Dr Sarmento

DR FRANCISCO SARMENTO:  We conclude that some were conscious and praying to their gods that they would survive that serious accident. 


Recife morgue

It’s possible that some of those victims may have survived the impact and died later by drowning.


Fowler and Dr Sarmento walking at clinic

FOWLER:  Dr Francisco Sarmento and his team concluded the injuries sustained by the passengers indicated Air France 447 hit the water as if it were landing. 

DR FRANCISCO SARMENTO:  It is possible the plane hit the water in a normal position


Dr Sarmento

and not with the nose down, because most of the fractures were on the thigh bones…


Bits of wreckage

caused by the impact of the seat when it hit the sea.

FOWLER:  Dr Sarmento’s belief that the plane did a belly flop is also supported by the fragments of wreckage picked up.  They show signs of being flattened.


Stills. Wreckage

If the plane came down in one piece and only broke up when it hit the ocean, the question is what brought it down?


Air France flight on runway.



Trip to France

FOWLER:  Was the crash a result of slack safety procedures by one of the world’s biggest airlines?  Or was there a fundamental flaw in the plane itself?  The best chance of getting an answer to that is not here in Brazil but an 11 hour flight away in France, home to the airline and the plane’s manufacturer, Airbus.



We’ll take the same flight aboard the same kind of plane, an A330.  The only difference is a new flight number.  Air France doesn’t call this 447 anymore.  We’re aboard the newly branded flight 445, still the tension among the passengers is palpable. 


Plane interior




FOWLER:  [On the plane]  It was about now,


Fowler to camera. Super:
Andrew Fowler

three and a half hours into the flight, that Air France 447 suffered a catastrophic failure.  The Airbus plunged from its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean below.


Map showing Flt 447 route



Passengers on board

FOWLER:   Flight 447 came to grief in the tropical convergence zone, an infamous stretch of mid-Atlantic airspace renowned for its wild and unpredictable weather, but on our trip the real turbulence lay ahead where the grieving families are mustering legal action. 



There’s concern about the independence of the official investigation and Air France and Airbus are engaged in some high revolution spin.


Paris at night



Christophe driving

CHRISTOPHE GULLIOT-NOEL:  Some families lost four relatives.



Some people, young children, lost their parents.  So now it’s the grandparents or cousins who must look after them.  So many families were torn apart on that day.


Christophe driving

FOWLER:  Christophe Gulliot-Noel lost a brother in the crash and he’s on his way to meet his legal team.  He and other French families are desperate for answers.  They’ve banded together to try to keep the official investigation honest.  They’re worried about a cosy relationship between Air France, Airbus and the investigators – the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis.

CHRISTOPHE GULLIOT-NOEL:  I have absolutely no confidence whatsoever in the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis.



The Bureau is made of people appointed by the Minister for Transport so obviously the State controls the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis.  It also controls Air France, as the State is a shareholder – and Airbus, since the State is also a shareholder. 


Press conference in Paris

FOWLER:  In order to best tackle the French Government effectively investigating itself, Gulliot-Noel’s group has drafted in outsiders.  Their British legal team has just arrived in Paris by train. 



JAMES HEALY PRATT:  [Addressing group]  I’m an aviation lawyer.  I’m head of Stewarts Law in London.  Thanks for coming this afternoon.



FOWLER:  The lawyers have been working on the case for four months, sifting the skerricks of evidence and combing through Airbus and Air France records.  They’ve arrived at an emphatic conclusion.



JAMES HEALY PRATT:  [Addressing group] We believe that the Air France 447 tragedy was preventable.  It could have been stopped and the families are going to hold the responsible parties to account, wherever they see fit.



JAMES HEALY PRATT: We’ve looked at what we think are four bad things that happened; the so-called error chain.


Healy Pratt interview

We believe that if you take any one of those bad things out of the error chain, the air crash wouldn’t have happened, and trying not to use hindsight, we believe that 447 was a preventable accident.



CHRISTOPHE GULLIOT-NOEL:  The French families are waiting for explanations about why this tragedy happened – technical explanations and acknowledgement of responsibility from all the companies involved in this crash. 


GFX. Air  France plane.  Maintenance







Highlight on Pitot

FOWLER:  The British team has paid particular attention to the routine maintenance messages, a stream of data transmitted from the aircraft in the hours leading up to the crash.  For the lawyers, it was enough to point the finger at one of the most fundamental parts of the aircraft.  They’re known as Pitots.

CAPTAIN JOHN MAHON: Some of the messages


Mahon at Press Conference

that were transmitted by the aircraft would seem to suggest that faulty Pitot tubes or speed sensors were instrumental in this accident.


Air France plane montage

FOWLER:  Pitots are critical to the function of these sophisticated aircraft.  Three small protruding tubes at the front of the plane measure the outside air pressure and use the information to calculate the speed of the aircraft.  If they fail, they can make the plane go so fast it breaks up.  Too slow and the aircraft can stall and fall out of the sky.


Healy Pratt

JAMES HEALY PRATT:  Our view is that for reasons that are still unexplained, the aircraft went into an area of bad weather, storm turbulence. After that there was a sequence of events where the Pitots likely failed to function so the crew had no reliable air speed data.


Planes overhead

FOWLER:  Certainly the messages received at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport only told Air France what it knew already, the Pitots were duds.




In fact they were so dodgy they were in the process of slowly replacing them on the entire fleet.   What’s worse, the problem with the Pitots had been known about for years.  They’d been blamed for a number of nearly disastrous accidents.  But both Air France and Airbus allowed the planes to fly on.


Fowler walks with Pesenti in airport

CHRISTOPHE PESENTI:  We’d like to know.  We’d like an explanation. 

FOWLER:  What happened.

CHRISTOPHE PESENTI:  Yeah what happened and why.



FOWLER:  Air France pilots had been agitating for action on the Pitots for some time.  The crash of Flight 447 so enraged them they threatened strike action unless the Pitots were changed.  Air France’s reaction was telling.

CHRISTOPHE PESENTI: So we asked the Air France pilots


Pesenti interview. Super:
Cristophe Pesenti
Pilots’ Union (ALTER)

not to fly on Airbus A330 or A340 with two Pitot out of three changed, two new Pitot out of three.




FOWLER:  So unless there were two of the three Pitots changed, your advice to your membership was don’t fly the A330 or the A340.


FOWLER: What happened?

CHRISTOPHE PESENTI:  Air France changed the Pitot tube one day after our ask.


Air France planes




FOWLER:  That is just 11 days after the crash.  Air France refused to talk to us about the crash.  We moved on to the other major player with questions to answer, the plane maker itself.


Travelling to Toulouse

We took the train to the south-west of France, a few hours from the Spanish border.  For the past four decades, the city of Toulouse has been Airbus Industrie’s home.


Airbus factory

For all their size and impressive superstructure, the Airbus, like their Boeing counterparts, rely heavily on computers.  They allow the aircraft to fly much higher, saving fuel and making them more profitable.  But flying high can cause problems too and Airbus and Air France knew about their Pitots freezing up at higher altitudes.



Fowler with Hamilton in factory looking at Pitots

CRAWFORD HAMILTON:  Pitots are all located round the middle section here.  So there’s one up there.



FOWLER:  But it was probably a confluence of problems that conspired to bring down Air France Flight 447.  Faulty Pitots and weather radar that wasn’t able to foretell the intensity of storms in the inter-tropical convergence zone. 

FERNANDO ALONSO: You have the weather radar which is


Alonso. Super:
Fernando Alonso
Head, Airbus Flight Operations

a very, it’s an equipment which is fitted on every single airplane.

FOWLER:  But it doesn’t always pick up exactly the problem, it doesn’t pick up the ice particles as well as it does the rain and at that altitude it’s much colder.

FERNANDO ALONSO:  It picks up a lot of information…

FOWLER:  That’s right isn’t it?  It is right to say that the ice is not picked up as easily as the rain, is that correct?



FERNANDO ALONSO:  I believe the ice could not be detected.


Pilot in simulator

FOWLER:  Ice would have resulted in incorrect air speeds being fed to the computers flying the plane.  Everything started going haywire.  The autopilot became disengaged, throwing control of the aircraft to a pilot who wrestled with contradictory advice. 



[Talking to pilot]  The Air France manual I understand says that you must respect the stall warning.  Whereas the Airbus manual says you should ignore it.  It makes no comment about it.  Does that cause problems for you - to have two different views of how to handle the problem?

CHRISTOPHE PESENTI:  Yes.  Yes.  In fact three months after this accident such problems still remain.


Pilot in simulator

FOWLER:  But with the pilot and plane overloaded with contradictory or incorrect information, there’s another fine line to negotiate.  At 35,000 feet the gap between a plane going too fast and breaking up and going too slow and stalling is wafer thin.


Pesenti interview. Super:
Christophe Pesenti
Pilots’ Union (ALTER)

CHRISTOPHE PESENTI:  At high altitude, there is a gap between over and under speed, which is very small.


Plane in night sky

FOWLER:  The aircraft can get caught in what the pilots call “coffin corner”.  The plane can fall out of the sky.


Mahon. Super:
Captain John Mahon
Aviation specialist

CAPTAIN JOHN MAHON: If you’ve got a slow forward airspeed and high vertical speed, it means you’re not in control.  The aircraft is descending rapidly.   It’s not moving forward very fast and that is all the symptoms of a stalled condition.


Plane over ocean




Looking for black box

FOWLER:  Of course so much speculation would be either supported or extinguished by the information on the flight data recorder, but so far even the most sophisticated eyes and ears in the air and on sea have failed to pinpoint the black box. 


Healy Pratt in helicopter

James Healy Pratt for one would prefer to be dealing with hard facts and detailed information rather than circumstantial evidence.  The aviation lawyer and aviation safety specialist is among a growing band urging a better way.



JAMES HEALY PRATT:  It’s highly desirable that data is streamed live from the aircraft to the maintenance base.


Healy-Pratt. Super:
James Healy-Pratt
Aviation lawyer

It is absurd that air safety depends on black boxes which sometimes cannot be recovered or if they are recovered, then the data cannot be properly transcribed because the boxes are damaged beyond analysis and that’s happened in many aircraft crashes we’ve been involved in.


Air France plane on tarmac

FOWLER:  But again like the Pitots at 90,000 US dollars a pop, it’s all about money for cost-conscious airlines. 


Recovering wreckage

Ditching the black-box for back to base data streaming is an expensive exercise.

JAMES HEALY PRATT:  There was one estimate that suggested that it would cost an airline $300 million a year to stream that data live for an average fleet, for a national flag carrier,



which of course is very expensive.  So there should be, I hope, a way in the next five years of having live data streaming at an affordable price which will then enhance our safety so we don’t have this searching operation to try and find black boxes when sometimes it’s not possible.


Families of crash victims

FOWLER:  Better information would also remove concerns the families hold about a possible cover up.  So far an interim report by French investigators shows their concerns are well founded.



CHRISTOPHE GULLIOT-NOEL:  They concluded that the plane did not break up in mid-flight.  That means there was no terrorist attack.  Very well.  But that’s all they said.  They never admitted that the Pitot tubes were the cause of the crash. 


Grieving families in church




FOWLER:  In Brazil three days of national mourning helped the families struggle with their grief, but they still want answers from those who have much to answer for.


Wreckage search

The trouble is the truth now lies at the bottom of the ocean.  An even bigger problem is that that’s where it may well remain.

NELSON MARINHO:  A piece of me is gone.



A son… I’ve lost my father… I lost my mother and brothers.  It hurts a lot… a lot. But a son… it’s very painful. 




Reporter:    Andrew Fowler
Research :  Bronwen Reed
                  Oscar McLaren
Camera:      David Martin
Editor:        Nick Brenner
Producer:   Vivien Altman




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