Sometimes the old wisdom turns out to be the better one – that is wisdom from the analog world, during a time when there were neither bits nor bytes, nor model calculations to explain the world to people. One of these wisdoms is: The search for missing persons using concentric circles around the last known position. Had the French aviation authority BEA followed the old wisdom, the wreckage of Air France Flight 447 would have been located within just a few weeks after it crashed off the Brazilian coast on June 1, 2009.”
This is how an online story here appearing in Germany’s flagship daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) began its story on the recent discovery of the wreckage of doomed Air France Flight 447, an Airbus 330-200 with 228 on board, which crashed into the ocean en route to Paris – almost 2 years ago.
Hat tip NTZ reader: Marcus K
So why did it take so long to find the wreckage in the Atlantic Ocean, in an area where the water is 4000 meters deep? The FAZ explains why. Instead of using the old concentric circle search method, authorities opted to rely on mathematical models from oceanographers and mathematicians. The result: they searched in the wrong area for almost 2 years.
In this case here, claiming the methodology was flawed but the answer is correct isn’t going to wash. Officails still don’t know why Flight 447 crashed. To find out, it is important to recover the flight data recorder. The sooner it is found, the quicker you can find the cause of the crash and implement possibly crucial technical modifications to the rest of the fleet in order to prevent the accident from happening again.
Unfortunately in this case, although the plane was found just recently, almost 2 years time was wasted – thus possibly put passengers in subsequent flights at needlessly higher risk.
The FAZ story writes that once a plane crashes, the flight recorder’s beacon sends out a signal for 30 days to make it easier to pinpoint its location. Already on June 10, 2009, an entire fleet of ships was searching an area, one was even equipped with Towed Pinger Locator, but there was no success. After 30 days, i.e. around July 1st, the flight recorder’s power ran out and the signal stopped. The first attempt to find the wreckage failed.
A second search attempt began on July 27, 2009, and included a French oceanography ship of the Ifremer Research Institute which used an ROV to search the ocean depths. But that search attempt also ended in failure on August 17, 2009.
Computer models send searchers on a wild goose chase
So what next? According to the FAZ (emphasis added):
Still in the summer of 2009, the French BEA contracted renowned oceanographers and mathematicians from France, Great Britain, USA and Russia to calculate the probable crash area. The task was to back-calculate the drift of the bodies and pieces of the wreckage that had been found north of the Last Known Position (LKP) on June 6, and trace it back to the time-point of the crash, taking currents, wind and waves into consideration. The highly complex calculations of the Drift Group were then summed up in a 2000 sq km probable crash area and presented in January 2010. The calculated area extended 60 km north of the last known position [LKP]. The 3rd phase of the search began on April 2, 2010.
This calculated search area is shown on the diagram, click here. Note how the mathematical computer model calculation produced an area all around where the wreckage was actually located. The last known position (LKP) is denoted by the green dot. The actual site of the wreckage is marked with an “X” and is only 10 km from the LKP! The initial search area of 2009 is denoted by the light blue box at the top of the graphic. Finally, the computer modelled mathematical calculated search area is denoted by Phase 3.
Needless to say, the models sent the rescue efforts on a wild goose chase from April 2 to May 24 2010. The computer-model guided Phase 3, too, ended in failure.
Eventually, it wasn’t until officials had spent €30 million and almost 2 years time (and gotten a stroke of luck) that they were able to claim success in late March 2011. The French Marine had placed electronic buoys and monitored them for weeks and found out that currents behaved unpredictably and changed very often. The modelers had made wrong assumptions.
They couldn’t even model a 2000 sq km area for 5 days
Keep in mind that the modellers here only had to calculate the dynamics of one grid cell on the planet – and that for only a period of 5 days – and not the entire planet for 100 years (which climate modellers now claim they can do). A relatively small area for a only few days – and they still got it all wrong! (I’m not making fun of the mathematicians here – I’m just saying the task is extremely complex, and so you have take results cautiously).
This really ought to be a lesson for people and policymakers who rely on computer models to tell them what the climate is going to be like for the entire planet 10, 50 or 100 years into the future. Folks, it’s nothing more than wild guessing.