SHORTLY after leaving Rio de Janeiro on its way to Paris in 2009, Air France flight 447 flew over a band of thunderstorms. It was an unremarkable event that at first resulted only in light turbulence. But, as anyone familiar with the headlines knows, things got much worse. It ended in one of the deadliest air disasters in recent history, killing all 228 people on board. The wreckage took two years to retrieve from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
When the black boxes were finally pulled out,, including pilot error and faulty software. However, one apparently minor detail is beginning to take on new significance: ice blockage in a sensor called a pitot tube, which measures air speed.
That shouldn’t have happened at 35,000 feet. According to our understanding of weather, it is not possible for ice to form at this altitude.
Flight 447 is not alone. It is the grisliest example of a stealthy phenomenon that has been pulling planes out of the sky for the past half-century. Aerospace companies, researchers and government bodies have joined forces to try to understand a threat whose reach is only starting to become clear. As a picture has emerged, though, it has also become apparent just how hard it will be to keep aircraft safe.
Rumours of planes falling out of the sky for no apparent reason have been around since the 1950s. Some research was done back then, but seems to have been lost. It wasn’t looked into again until 1994, when …