The recovery of a large part of the tail of the Air France A330-200 from the mid-Atlantic crash site is of critical importance in determining the sequence of events that caused the disaster.

Image courtesy New York Times
Image courtesy New York Times
Image courtesy New York Times
Image courtesy New York Times

These images show the rudder still attached to the vertical stabiliser, but with broken attachment points where the assembly would have been connected to the top of the rear fuselage.

The general layout of the movable rudder (left or rear edge of tail) and the fixed vertical stabiliser is shown (below) in this official Air France image of a different type of jet, a Boeing 777-300ER, however the position of the components is the same, and no image of the AF A330-200 was accessible on the airline’s corporate web site.

General layout of vertical stabiliser and rudder from Air France image library
General layout of vertical stabiliser and rudder from Air France image library

Debate, some of it wildly speculative or misinformed has broken out as to what the images tell at first glance.

Did it break off as seen in the images in mid-air, or was the assemblage ripped off the fuselage as it tore its way through the sea on impact?

Either way, catastrophic failure of the vertical stabiliser through brute force would break the titanium bolts that attached it to the top of the rear fuselage before the monolithic structure of each of the two main components broke up.

Such forces could also have been applied as a consequence of a high speed stall, caused when a jet flies too slowly to sustain flight at high altitudes, because of the forces that would then twist and bend an aircraft in a violent storm cell.

The automated ACARS messages received from the jet via satellite during the final minutes before contact was lost include control surface problems as well as erroneous or disparate air speed indications which Air France has officially associated with the external pitot tubes.

However some doubts are arising as to the exact sequence of these events and a range of electrical and computer systems error messages received by the operations base in Paris.

The two ‘black boxes’ comprising the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder are located in the tail section of the jet but under the components recovered overnight.

They are almost certainly on the bottom of the ocean, but estimates of their location can be calculated with less uncertainty once the rate of drift of floating wreckage in the conditions since the crash on 1 June are taken into account.

At least 17 bodies have been recovered from the crash zone, and may on examination yield further clues as to what happened inside the jet in the minutes before it succumbed to a set of serious failures.

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