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Crash of Flight 447 (DVD Review)

1 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 11/2/10
$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

“Aviation does not do well with unsolved mysteries,” notes a commentator at the conclusion of this documentary whodunit (or more precisely, a “how’d-it-happen”) about the AirFrance Airbus A330 that disappeared over the Atlantic on June 1, 2009, with the loss of all 288 lives. And for no apparent reason.

To this end, “Nova” assembled a team of veteran pilots, engineers and safety sleuths to make the most educated guess possible as to why the Rio de Janeiro-to-Paris flight “fell out of the sky” (which is how the disaster has been described) when no A330 had ever before been involved in a mishap. Obviously motivating the project was one of the eerier takes on that familiar statement about how, if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

I’ve always wondered what happens when an outside organization mounts an operation like this at considerable time and expense, only to draw a blank akin to that infamous night when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault on national TV … and found nothing. In this case, however, the experts are finally able to make a plausible case for what happened — and an inarguable one that there are severe limitations to having almost everything but the coffee maker on modern airliners operating via total automation.

For the same reason that fictional movies about threatened planes will always have an audience, documentaries such as this are inevitably compelling — even when they’re dealing with an extreme example of highly technical “inside baseball” (as this one is). In this case, the “Nova” team didn’t even have the more tactile recovered refuse to deal with hands-on; the nosecone and other recovered chunks were in the domain of the official investigators. However, it was awash in transcripts, photos and other secondary materials — though no flight boxes have ever been found, which inevitably puts anybody’s findings on the high side of speculative.

Because the story is a mystery and certainly being sold as one, it’s not reader-friendly to give away very much — except to say that one key question turns out to be: “Why did the plane apparently fly into a whopper storm?” That’s an essential grabber here — as is (to me, at least) the explanation of how a certain kind of water can remain water and not ice despite temperatures being well below freezing. But the big story here, at least from a storyteller’s point of view, is what the investigators surmise must have happened in the pilots’ final minutes — when the automation suddenly failed, everything had to be handled manually and so many things did go wrong at once that the crew likely couldn’t even note them all, much less rectify them.

This is, by the way, at least the third “Nova” documentary to dissect an air disaster. The Deadliest Plane Crash examines the 1977 Canary Island collision that took 583 lives (a record), while Crash of 111 looks at the 1998 Swissair flight that went into the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing all 229 people on board. Both are still available on DVD.

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