In a case of history repeating itself, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 which went missing early on Saturday morning en-route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and still remains to be located four days later, reminds one of Air France flight AF447 which crashed five years earlier in 2009 while on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
There are significant similarities between the two incidents as well as some differences.
Similarities between MH370 and AF447
- Still missing. Both flights are yet to be located, many days after contact was lost. In case of AF447, while a few pieces of debris were spotted about five days after the crash, the aircraft itself was located almost two years after it disappeared.
- Safe airlines. Both Malaysia Airlines and Air France have strong safety reputations. Malaysia Airlines is a member of the oneworld global airline alliance while Air France is a founder of SkyTeam.
- Popular twin-jets. Both flights were operated by the two most popular twin-engined wide-body jetliners of their time. MH370 was operated by the Boeing 777-200ER 9M-MRO which is the mainstay of most US carriers and some European carriers. AF447 was operated by the Airbus A330-200 F-GZCP which is popular across Europe, some US carriers, and many Asian carriers.
- First major crash for the aircraft type. Both MH370 and AF447 represent the first crash with major fatalities for the two aircraft types, Boeing 777 and Airbus A330.
- Similar passenger count. MH370 has 239 persons on board. AF447 has 228. Both flights operated with 12 crew. Though AF447 had three pilots while MH370 had two due to the flight length.
- Flight altitude and attitude. Both flights were over the sea and cruising at 35,000ft altitude when contact was lost. The cruise is the most stable portion of a flight when none of the equipment, systems, or people are stressed.
- No mayday or “pan pan pan” call. As the crash investigations of AF447 showed, the flight crew’s priority is to get the aircraft stable and find a solution to any sudden technical problem, so we should not find this too surprising.
- Ground collisions. Both 9M-MRO (MH370) and F-GZCP (AF447) had ground collisions with other aircraft prior to their incidents, and had undergone repairs. In case of F-GZCP the crash investigations established there was no correlation between the ground collision and the final crash in the Atlantic.
- Night. Both incidents occurred during the night.
Differences between MH370 and AF447
- Weather. The Malaysia Airlines flight was in apparently good weather. Major weather turbulence was a contributing factor in the crash of Air France AF447.
- Captain in charge. MH370 was a relatively short flight of six hours and had two pilots, one of whom is the captain, who was likely in the cockpit at the time of the incident. AF447 was an intercontinental flight of long duration which mandated three pilots on the flight. Two of whom would fly at any given time while the third rested. In the Air France accident, the captain was resting in the crew rest area and returned to the cockpit moments before the Airbus slammed in to the Atlantic ocean.
- ACARS. Both aircraft in MH370 and AF447 are equipped with the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. However, while the Airbus A330 in AF447 sent out 24 automatic “technical events” messages in the last four minutes via ACARS, there is no information from Malaysia Airlines whether any ACARS messages have been received from their Boeing 777.
- Location. While AF447 went down in deep international waters, far out of radar coverage in the Atlantic ocean, the track of MH370 was over areas well covered by radar, in relatively shallow territorial waters of the gulf of Thailand and western south China sea. Once MH370 is located, the shallower waters should make recovery easier.
- Governing authority. In the accident of AF447 the crash occurred in international waters, allowing the well experienced and highly competent French BEA to take charge of the investigation. It also helped that both the nation of the operating carrier, Air France, and the nation of aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, was France. In the case of MH370, Malaysia is the nation of the carrier, United States is the nation of the aircraft manufacturer, Boeing. Depending on the location of the crash of MH370, Malaysia, Vietnam, or some other nation might also get involved.
Regardless of what happens, the jet will be located. There is simply too much riding on finding answers.