Finding the Lost Flight: The Search for Air France 447

On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 disappeared during an overnight flight from Rio to Paris. Metron produced the probability map that guided searchers to the location of the wreckage.

The loss of Air France Flight 447 with 228 passengers and crew kicked off an intense search on the surface for possible survivors and an extensive underwater search for the aircraft wreckage.

After two years of unsuccessful search, Metron was tasked by the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile (BEA), the French equivalent of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), to a produce a probability map for the location of the Airbus A330.

Working closely with the BEA, Metron analysts leveraged Bayesian statistics to summarize and incorporate all prior search efforts and generate probability maps characterizing each search phase. The final probability map Metron created guided the search team to the wreckage location in a matter of days.

Project Timeline

Air France 447 – The Evolution of a Search

June 1, 2009

Air France 447 departed on an overnight flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil destined for Paris, France. The aircraft disappeared in bad weather near the Equator during a no-radar/no-radio handoff from South American to African air traffic control.

June 6, 2009

Surface searches recovered floating wreckage, and a passive acoustic search was initiated in the vicinity of the aircraft's last known point (LKP) to detect the underwater locator beacons (ULBs) installed on the two “black boxes” on the aircraft.

July 2009

When the passive acoustic search failed to detect the black box beacons, the BEA turned to Metron to help better define the underwater search area. Metron’s expertise in successfully applying Bayesian search theory to real world problems, such as the 1968 hunt for the missing submarine Scorpion and the 1987 search for the SS Central America (the 'Ship of Gold'), made us uniquely suited for the complicated underwater search for the missing plane.

December 2010

After two seasons of unsuccessful search efforts, Metron was approached again and asked to generate an updated probability map incorporating search efforts to date and indicating the best areas to focus the next phase of search. The Metron difference? Our systematic and principled Bayesian approach incorporated all the available information about the possible location of the wreckage and accounted for the previous unsuccessful searches. Of special note, we based our new map on the possibility that both black boxes were damaged in the crash, and the "pingers" on the boxes never transmitted a beacon signal for searchers to detect.

March 2011

Guided by Metron's latest probability map, the BEA conducted their final search. Within one week, the autonomous underwater vehicle's sonar detected a debris field on the ocean's bottom, nearly 10,000 feet below the surface. Cameras quickly verified the debris to be the wreckage of Air France Flight 447.

May 2011

Both the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) were recovered from the wreckage and the data was forensically examined by BEA officials. The data revealed multiple issues leading to the accident. As a result of these findings, the worldwide aviation community made sweeping changes to aircrew training and procedures, aircraft systems and displays, aircraft tracking, and emergency beacon design.

Our Impact

“This [Metron] study published on the BEA website on 20 January 2011, indicated a strong possibility for discovery of the wreckage near the center of the [search area] circle. It was in this area that it was in fact discovered after one week of exploration …”
Jean-Paul Troadec, Director, Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA)

Core Capabilities

Our Expertise

Metron’s Advanced Mathematics Applications (AMA) Division led the way in the use of Bayesian statistics to incorporate all information, including unsuccessful searches, into a posterior probability map. We provided this map to the BEA and it guided searchers to the location of the wreckage of Air France Flight 447.


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Key Contributor

Dr. Lawrence D. Stone

Bayesian Search Theory Expert

Dr. Stone joined Metron in 1986. He became the chief operating officer in 1990 and the chief executive officer in 2004. In 2010 he returned to primarily technical work as the chief scientist. He is the author of The Theory of Optimal Search, which won the prestigious Lanchester Prize for the best work in Operations Research in 1975. He is co-author of the 2014 book Bayesian Multiple Target Tracking 2nd Ed. and the 2016 book Optimal Search for Moving Targets. Dr Stone led the Metron team in the successful search for the missing Air France flight 447. He also performed Bayesian analysis leading to the discovery of the SS Central America off the coast of South Carolina in 1987 and conducted on-scene analysis for the US Navy in the search for the submarine Scorpion off the Azores in 1968.

Key Contributor

Next Project

Aircraft Flight Analytics

Metron develops software for NASA and industry partners providing historical and real-time anomaly detection of airline flights as well as real-time predictions of flight and evolving airspace behaviors.

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