Dec. 28, 2014: Weather will be a prime area of focus by investigators of the disappearance of AirAsia flight QZ8501. The flight, an Airbus A320-200 manufactured in 2008 and powered by CFM 56 engines, deviated from its intended flight path due to weather conditions, according to reports from officials in Indonesia.
It’s presumed the airplane’s disappearance is an accident.
With these reports, investigators will put weather conditions at the top of their list of areas to probe. They will attempt to determine whether there was a high altitude upset due to turbulence that caused the plane to lose control; whether the plane was intact when it presumably crashed into the sea or whether it came apart in flight, and if so whether this possibility was caused by stresses beyond design limits. Investigators will attempt to determine whether the plane was struck by lightning, causing a chain of events leading to a crash.
Recovery of the flight data and cockpit voice recorders will be a priority. Data on these will go a long way toward telling investigators what happened and even potentially “why.” Recovery of the airplane itself and passengers will allow forensic analysis that will be important, such as whether the airplane broke up in flight and when passengers expired and due to what injuries and when—such as if passengers died on impact or from an explosive decompression if the airplane broke up in the air.
Weather, severe turbulence and lightning events have been known to precipitate crashes, although these are rare events, particularly at cruising altitudes. On June 1, 2009, Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330-200, crashed into the South Atlantic after flying into an area of severe turbulence and thunderstorms. The pitot tubes—which measure airspeed—froze over, beginning a chain of events in which the pilots stalled the airplane. The aircraft hit the ocean intact in a flat and minimal forward speed trajectory. Pilot error was determined to be the principal cause of this accident, with weather and the frozen pitot tubes being contributing factors.
As a matter of routine, investigators will also look at the following areas of inquiry, in no particular order:
As we post this, there are a few reports that some wreckage may have been spotted. Recovery of any wreckage and bodies from the waters may provide some initial clues as to what happened. Stress points on the airplane could indicate whether the plane was intact upon impact with the water and autopsies of bodies recovered could likewise tell whether passengers died from blunt force trauma or other injuries. If any passengers had life jackets on, this would suggest there was some warning before impact.