June 2009, 228 passengers and crewmembers were aboard Air France Flight 447 when it disappeared over the Atlantic. Flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on what was expected to be an 11-hour flight, the plane seemed to have fallen from the sky. Five days later wreckage was found (the tail section, about 1000 other pieces, as well as 50 bodies); the black boxes are still missing. Was it an accident or deliberate terrorist act?
In an attempt to discover what caused this tragedy, Nova assembled an independent team of investigators including piilots, a weather expert, a structural engineer, and an air accident expert. Working from “extensive photographic evidence,” they began their quest to find answers to the riddle that was the fate of Flight 447.
Relying on known facts and new scientific analysis to find the truth behind the crash, the investigation began with a study of the transcripts of pilot communication with air traffic control. Nothing extraordinary was found. Three hours into the flight, the plane was where it should have been; one minute later air traffic control was unable to reach the pilots, which was not considered a cause for alarm, since it wasn’t at all unusual.
Flight 447 disappeared from radar screens, but — again — there was no cause for alarm, since planes over the mid-Atlantic are “on their own,” outside the range of land-based radar.
Damage to the nosecone, tail, and cargo area floor indicated that the plane hit the water flat, in one piece. It did not explode, but fell from the air. The investigative team studied details of the weather and discovered there had been a 250-mile-wide thunderstorm. Perhaps a lightning strike caused the crash? Unlikely--it is estimated that every plane is hit by lightning once a year; the last lightning-induced crash was in the late 1960s, and planes are designed to withstand lightning strikes.