PLANE CRASHES: A first look at the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash from this morning.

PLANE CRASHES: A first look at the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash from this morning. March 24, 2015

This morning a Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf has crashed in the area of Digne up the massive “Trois évêchés” mountains in France.  There was apparently 144 passengers, 2 pilots, and four crew, none of whom have survived.  My heart goes out to all victims of this tragedy (including a group of 16 high schools students and 2 teachers who were aboard).

Let’s talk about what investigators are likely going to assess once they’re on the scene.  They will first look for the “four corners”, these being the nose, both wing tips, and the tail.  If they are in a tight formation then they know the plane was intact when it hit the ground.  If they’re spread out then they know the plane began to come apart in mid-air.  Presently they’re spread out over about 2 kilometers.  That’s a very wide debris field which very much suggests a mid-air break up of some sort.

We also know that the plane has completely disintegrated (the largest debris is about the size of a car according to several reports).  We need to know if this was caused by the impact with the ground.  The first thing to look at is how fast the plane was descending as confirmed by radar:



Initial reports say the Airbus “plunged at a rate of 5,000 feet per minute.”  The Daily Mirror even said it plunged 31,000 feet in just 8 minutes (less than 5k/min).  Is that fast?  Well, yes, but not terribly so considering the normal rate of descent to the glide-slop interception point for that model is 2,000-3,000 feet per minute.  Many airliners descend at up to 3,500 fpm.  So 5,000 is faster than usual, but not outside the threshold for the Airbus 320.  Saying it “plunged” is just sensationalist bullshit.  If a mile is 5,280 feet, that means the plane was falling at less than 60 mph.  When you consider that the cruising speed of an A320 is about 500 mph, this is not enough to tear it apart mid-air.  What’s more, the descent was gradual, not up, down, and all over the place, so the plane wasn’t seeing any additional strain for maneuvers outside its designed capabilities.

We can compare that to Pacific Southwest Airlines #1771, which was intentionally crashed by a disgruntled employee named David Burke in 1987.  The employee put the plane into a nose dive into the ground, disintegrating the plane and ripping parts off in mid-air.  That plane hit the ground at 770 mph (slightly faster than the speed of sound).  That’s the kind of force usually required to disintegrate an airplane on impact.

However, the plane has crashed into the side of a mountain.  It’s possible that the plane’s forward speed could have been enough to do that kind of damage.  It’s impossible to tell right now, but will be easier once the black boxes (the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder) are examined.  The good news is that the plane’s black boxes have already been recovered as I write this.

If the plane did break up in mid-air, it’s pointless to speculate about the cause right now as a lot of different things could’ve caused it.  I see a lot of people on twitter saying a bomb, but terrorism has already been ruled as unlikely and weather has been ruled out completely.  Lufthansa’s VP has also publicly stated they’re working on the assumption that this was an accident, so let’s not leap to conclusions.  What’s so damn strange about this is that the pilots never issued a distress call or sent a mayday signal.  It was actually air traffic control that declared the emergency.  If the plane was out of control, this might be understandable (but even in those situations the pilots generally manage to contact air traffic control to declare emergency).

However, it doesn’t seem like the plane is in an uncontrolled descent.  The rate of descent is constant, which suggests the pilots had some degree of control (though clearly not complete control).  It’s been determined that the speed on impact was about 350 mph, which is consistent with engine failure as is the steady rate of descent (it’s also about the speed at which you would try to reignite the engines).  It looks like the pilot was gliding and trying to make an amergency landing.  But engine failure would not result in a wide debris field, nor would it prevent the pilots from communicating with air traffic control.  On top of that, the A320 can fly safely on a single engine and dual engine failure, though not impossible(see Air Canada #143, Air Transat #236, British Airways #9, Southern Airways #242, and US Airways #1549 which famously landed safely in the Hudson River – it was also an A320 model) is extremely rare.

To compound the strangeness, this crash occurred mid-flight, which is also extremely rare.  Most crashes occur right after takeoff or right before landing.

It’s important to figure out why this crash occurred, not just to slake our curiosity, but because the A320 is one of the most popular planes in the world.  If there is a design flaw we must know about it.  That’s the beauty, for me, of studying plane crashes.  I get to learn about how every crash changed aviation so that a similar accident could never happen again.  It’s really helped me to deal with my fear of flying.  That’s why I’ve been sad lately when there has been talk of discontinuing the search for the lost Malaysian plane.  That one’s a mystery for the ages, and if there’s a hidden threat in the plane’s design it needs to be known.

Obviously the speculation of a religion/politics blogger who finds the subject fascinating won’t lead to any conclusions about this crash.  That will be up to the professionals.  But it’s still fascinating to know how we can dredge facts from a crash site to figure out what happened in the air.

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