What AF447’s Passengers Experienced

One of the more interesting responses to my recent Pop Mech piece on Air France 447 came from the Atlantic Wire, which took my description of the sounds and smells that the pilots experienced as a point of departure to discuss what the flight’s final moments must have felt like for those in the cockpit. Here is a photograph that accompanies the post, showing the electrical phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s fire. I’ve never seen such a thing in real life, but imagine that it must seem both beautiful and worrying.

Thanks to the cockpit voice recorder, we have a pretty good idea of what the pilots heard, and the instrument data gives us a pretty good idea of what they saw. But what about the passengers in the back? Their perspective was very different, so I’d like to offer a few speculations about what the final moments of the flight might have been like for them.

The plane had taken off from Rio de Janeiro at 7.30 in the evening, local time, and had been flying for about four hours when it first encountered the weather system that would precipitate the final crisis. It was nearly midnight, then, by the internal clocks of most of the passengers; a few were probably reading, or watching a video, while the majority were probably sleeping, or lightly dozing. The captain himself had just left the cockpit to go take a nap.

As the flight neared the line of massive thunderstorms straddling the Inter Tropical Convergence, any passenger who happened to be awake would probably have felt some light turbulence. Those looking out window would have watched the plane fly into a bank of clouds, then out into clear sky, and then back into clouds. At six minutes past midnight, one of the co-pilots made a call back to the head flight attendant, alerting her that the plane would shortly be entering an area of turbulence. He made no such announcement to the passengers, however.

The turbulence grew worse. In the cabin, the flight attendants would have been strapping into their seats.

As a frequent traveler, I’ve experience similar moments many times before: the sudden, unanticipated jolt, followed at irregular intervals by more lurches of varying magnitude. I invariably remind myself that turbulence alone has never caused a modern airliner to crash, but it does little to soothe my nerves. Fears are, after all, irrational, and there is something primally disturbing about being tossed around without any clues as to why, or when the next bump will take place. I imagine some passengers might have been roused from half-slumber; others might have tightened their seatbelt, or tossed back the half-finished drink to keep it from spilling.

The main drama began at 10 minutes past midnight, when the speed sensors became iced over, the autopilot disengaged, and the pilot flying the plane pulled back on the controls, sending into a steep climb. The passengers would have had no explanation for the sudden lurch, nor would it have been easy for them to know in the minutes that followed if they were climbing or descending. One of the most difficult things about piloting a plane in darkness or clouds is the body’s inability to accurately determine its orientation or whether it’s going up or down; this spatial disorientation was the main factor behind JFK Jr’s death. Once an aircraft is in a steady descent or ascent, it feels just the same as flying level, just as an ascending elevator feels the same as one at rest. Few of the passengers could have guessed that after the plane reached its maximum altitude it began a very rapid descent. Indeed, even the co-pilots themselves, with their panels full of instruments and indicators, seemed uncertain as to what exactly was happening, several times discussing whether they were actually going up or down. Until the moment AF447 hit the water, none of the passengers could have known what was in store.

It’s also worth pointing out that, though the plane several times achieved an angle of attack exceeding 40 degrees, this does not mean that the passengers would have experienced themselves as tilting steeply backward, like roller-coaster riders climbing the first hill. The angle of attack is the angle between the wing and the air through which it’s moving; the reason that the value was so high during AF447’s final minutes was that the aircraft was practically dropping like a brick. Its orientation, however, was only about ten degrees up. It probably didn’t seem that remarkable, or even noticeable given what else was going on at the same time.

What the passengers would certainly have felt, and been alarmed by, were intense buffeting and turbulence. Remember, the flight was passing through the top of a major thunderstorm. Making matters worse was the fact that when an aircraft wing is on the edge of an aerodynamic stall, it naturally experiences a kind of buffeting, or trembling. Add to this the fact that a plane is very difficult to control at stall speeds, so the pilot flying the plane was making big side-to-side movements of the flight controls, causing large-scale lurches to the left and right.

It’s a testament to the integrity of the Airbus that it withstood the forces it was subjected to; in his book Erreurs de Pilotage (Volume 5) Jean-Pierre Otelli makes the case that a lesser airliner would probably have been ripped to shreds. But it can’t have been an easy ride for the passengers. I know from experience that in heavy turbulence a moment comes when a particularly violent lurch seems to release the anxiety of the cabin en masse; a gasp seems to erupt from everywhere at once, and a contagion of fear takes over. People begin to cry, to pray, to quietly sob. All at once, everyone has entered a new emotional domain.

One reader commented, shortly after my Pop Mech piece went up, that she hoped that the passengers hadn’t suffered. I think it’s true in a sense, that they didn’t know that the plane was doomed, and that the force of impact was so great that most or all were killed instantly. Psychologically, though, it must have been a terrifying ordeal — though for none quite as much as for the pilots, who alone knew what was about to happen to them.