Since, at this point, we still do not know specifically what happened to the Air France passenger jet that simply disappeared over the Atlantic today, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, I will venture a few thoughts about what could have happened.
First, having flown as a commercial airline passenger over a million-and-a-half miles in the last 20 years (probably closer to 2 million miles, when you add it all up), I can vouch for the fact that turbulence and lightning, however it bad either might get — and (very rarely, thank the Lord) I have experienced some truly hair-raising, white-knuckle incidents of both while flying — are not likely to, in themselves, sufficiently damage a modern passenger jet enough to make it crash. That scenario is possible, of course, but things I have read today seem to support my opinion that modern aircraft, such as the doomed Air France Airbus, are sufficiently resilient to survive passing through severe weather, all things being equal.
This is why I question the likelihood of a lightning strike or turbulence being the cause of bringing down that 4-year old Airbus — equipped, as it was, with the very latest in avionics and bad-weather avoidance technology. While that's certainly a possible scenario — I do not deny it — at this point it seems less likely.
Second, all the reports I have read thus far about this disaster, especially those in the French-language press, lead me to assume that this accident (or whatever it was) must have occurred at cruising altitude which, for this plane on this route, would have been about 35,000 feet (+/-). Keep in mind that Air France Flight 447 was already four hours into its transit from Rio to Paris.
News reports thus far have emphasized that the crew "did not have any time" to transmit a mayday signal as the plane was going down. Apparently, whatever happened on that plane happened so quickly that there was no time for any emergency message from the crew.
Third, if there had been some kind of electrical malfunction or catastrophic systems failure at around 35,000 feet, the crew would certainly have had ample time to transmit some kind of mayday communication, however brief. But the news reports I've read thus far indicate that the catastrophe happened too fast for them to broadcast any emergency messages.
So I ask myself, how could that be? What could have happened so suddenly at that altitude that would preclude any chance of the crew sounding an alarm?
Two grim possibilities come to mind.
1) Some kind of sudden structural failure crippled the jet at high altitude, leading to an immediate, explosive decompression and disintegration of the airframe. While rare, this kind of freak accident has happened before, more than once.
2) Terrorists on the flight itself detonated a bomb that brought the plane down.
Le Monde has reported that up to five middle-eastern passengers (three Moroccans and two Lebanese) were on board.
It may well be that severe weather or some type of freak structural failure brought that plane down, killing everyone.
Or, maybe it was . . . something else.
I hope we find the black boxes.
(NB: This entry was originally posted on June 1, 2009; updates were added subsequently.)
Related: Communiqué d'Air France suite à la disparition du vol Rio-Paris (current as of 9:00 p.m. ET, June 1, 2009).