Mathematical Computer Models Fail Utterly In The Search For The Wreckage Of Air France Flight 447

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.

10 responses to “Mathematical Computer Models Fail Utterly In The Search For The Wreckage Of Air France Flight 447”

  1. Edward

    = G.I.G.O. – PG.

  2. Wellington


    I know you are not but others may be seduced into thinking that this had something to do with the shortcomings of mathematics and our digital understanding of an analog world—which is not very analog anyway, at the quantum level. The FAZ writer Henning Sietz leads off with that thought to spice things up a bit but he gets quickly to the real issue of old versus new methods of solving problems.

    The disparity between what we think we know and what we really know is an old problem. Well, maybe it’s just old but it’s not really a “problem”. Problems have solutions and this thing does not. If something doesn’t have a solution it’s not really a problem; it’s just part of life. (H/T to David Ben-Gurion, I think)

    What seems new here—the belief that we can somehow solve this old knowledge “problem” by applying technology—is not new, either. It’s a real problem—an ancient one—that has nothing to do with technology but it is well understood and described:

    Man’s arrogance and vanity.

    How old is that problem? “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom,” someone told their contemporaries in Proverbs 11:2. Of course, should our modernity aficionados have too much disregard for our unscientific ancestors, David Hume offers a “modern” opinion:

    “When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.”

    Because other than the most complete failure of the AF447 search efforts for the last 2 years, everything else was fine, wasn’t it? They looked at the data they had. They kept making hypotheses based on the data. The hypotheses turned out wrong.

    Finally, someone in the French navy was diligent or humble enough to suspect their “data” was crap and decided to drop buoys to measure the actual sea currents. Low and behold, the currents were different than what they thought they were. Their data was crap. Give the sailor a Légion d’honneur for humility.

    You made a great connection, Pierre, by drawing parallels between this comparably *) simple search effort and the absurd conduct and methods of the catastrophic global warming syndicate.

    The benign conclusion is that these people are fools but I am too old to not have other suspicions.

    What else is new?

    Nihil sub sole novum.

    *) The emphasis in the sentence is on “comparably”, not on “simple”

  3. DirkH

    The task of the climate modelers is even more impossible as they make assumptions about cloud formation without knowing the real microphysics. Why don’t they know them? Because nobody does. But some people try to explore them…

    Fascinating lecture by Jasper Kirkby about progress in the CLOUD experiment; he describes how a gas-to-particle mechanism forms aerosols literally out of thin air, creating cloud condensation nuclei (You can skip the first 30min or so if you already know the basics of the Svensmark hypothesis and the CLOUD experiment)

  4. DirkH

    The BBC describes the anti-nuclear, anti-coal and anti-pylon green movements in Germany. For the BBC, not too bad an article.

  5. RCS

    I have been involved in mathematical modelling in an entirely different, but challenging field. We did experiments and tried to see if we could account for our data using mathematical models and then attempt to make experimetally verifiable predictions from our models – a number of which fell flat on their face.

    Unfortunately the field became “trendy” for mathematicians and they descended on the subject in force. Frankly, I have never heard such intellectually substandard BS from the “intelligensia”. Their results bore no relation to reality and, when this was pointed out, they responded almost to a man (no women) that we, who had spent 20 years in the subject didn’t know what we were talking about and were too stupid to to understand the beauty of their mathematics.

    I used to be an enthusiast for mathematical modelling, and when properly applied, I regard it as an invaluable tool. Nevertheless, I was educated in the arrogance and lack of physical insight of the the mathematicians who entered the field and came to realise that they were only interested in the problem as mathematics. Fortunately, because the field is medicine, practically nobody will will take any notice of what mathematicians have to say unless their predictions can be backed up experimentally.

    1. DirkH

      Some people say that this is what happened to physics.

    2. NeilM

      And some might say that the mathematical abstractions (contortions?) produced by Astrophysicists and Cosmologists, invoking black holes and dark matter etc. to explain unexpected astronomical discoveries, are nothing more that science fiction, with no grounding in empirical science.

  6. Marcus Kesseler

    Hi Pierre,

    great write-up! Thanks,

    Marcus K

  7. Jimbo

    If we get sustained global cooling they will have no choice but to increasingly hang onto their models. MAY, MIGHT, COULD, will then be used as evidence of AGW. This CON is dying slowly.

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