Thinking Tech

Flight's last messages analyzed by avionics expert

Posting in Aerospace

A 20-minute podcast with an avionics engineer analyzes the final four minutes of technical messages transmitted by flight 447 to Air France maintenanc...

A 20-minute podcast with an avionics engineer analyzes the final four minutes of technical messages transmitted by flight 447 to Air France maintenance. The engineer only identified as "Darryl" paints a chilling picture of near simultaneous computer and electrical faults that likely contributed to the aircraft's demise.

Darryl is presented as an expert on the Honeywell Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System known as ACARS. He methodically goes through each of flight 447's last 26 ACARS messages, each one line and each cryptic.  The podcast convincingly shows how large jetliners completely depend on computer data to fly, prompting one to ask how much should we rely on smart technologies in critical situations. Or how can engineers make certain smart technologies don't fail when they're needed most which in an airplane is all the time?

"[The pilot] is trying to fly the plane with no technology. You had 14 messages in the first minute. There's too much going on. You're looking at blank displays. You have no auto throttle or auto pilot and have multiple failures of navigational equipment," Darryl says the messages indicate.

[In turbulence and the dark], it's up and down. You can get vertigo very easy and turn the airplane upside down. You don't know if you're climbing or descending. You have no airspeed. Those are things that cause an aircraft to fall out of the sky or break up in the sky."

The podcast was produced by the Innovation Analysis Group which appears to follow aviation technologies. Lead interviewer Addison Schonland has a knack for asking poignant questions.  IAG boasts that it has  "some of the smartest people you could meet."

Here's a link to a document listing the ACARS messages so you can follow along with Darryl's analysis in the podcast. IAG usually charges for podcasts but has made the ones on flight 447 available free as a "public service." Another interesting podcast at IAG's site is with former National Transportation Safety Board vice  chairman Robert Francis who explores the possibility of ACARS transmitting a much richer set of data such as location so planes can be tracked over water where there is no radar.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure