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Germanwings Flight 9525: Team of researchers charts last moments

Simulation of aircraft hitting mountainside

Image: College of Science

An international team of researchers led by Texas A&M University mathematician Goong Chen has used the latest in visualization technology and their collective scientific expertise to chart the final moments of Germanwings Flight 9525, deliberately crashed in the French Alps on March 24, 2015.

Although it happened almost two years ago, the crash is still fresh in the minds of many, if not for the extenuating circumstances that occurred in the Airbus A320-211’s cockpit prior to the catastrophic event which killed all 150 people on board, then for the absolute and complete destruction of the aircraft in the equally tragic aftermath.

With little more to go on than the aircraft’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders, area topography and the debris scattering pattern, Chen and his collaborators across the United States and in France, China and Saudi Arabia used computational mechanics and mathematical modeling to produce a visualization of Flight 9525 — specifically, the type of impact that would lead the plane to pulverize in the way it did. Their results are published today (February 20) in Physica Scripta, the physics journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

“Based on our simulations and the evidence from the flight data recorder, we found the most likely scenario is that Flight 9525 crashed head-on into a hard-rock impact area of the ravine, pulverizing upon impact and scattering the debris up the ravine, away from the initial impact point,” Chen said.

Chen, an applied mathematician in the Texas A&M Department of Mathematics since 1987, previously studied the disappearance of MH370 in the Indian Ocean. He used similar mathematical modeling expertise to support his team’s theory that the aircraft had entered the water vertically, thereby accounting for the lack of floating debris and the main wreckage’s total disappearance — a theory which is somewhat consistent with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s November 2, 2016, assessment report stating that MH370 spiraled downward vertically and into the Indian Ocean.

Unlike MH370, however, Chen says with regard to Flight 9525, most of the causes and flight details related are well known and understood.

“Both the crash and the aircraft’s disintegration happened so fast that the large amount of aviation fuel did not burn or explode,” Chen said. “During the crash, a huge amount of energy transfer was made violently and destructively within tenths of a second, transforming from kinetic energy into fracture energy and effectively pulverizing the aircraft.”

Beyond vastly improved visualization technology in the three years since MH370, Chen and his team also benefited from a novel hybrid finite element and smoothed-particle hydrodynamics method they developed specifically to better simulate the Flight 9525 crash.

“What we had hoped to understand was, under what conditions will that happen to a plane?” Chen said. “We wanted to uncover and also provide a visualization of the dynamics of the impact and the crash damage.”