June 4, 2009 in Nation/World

Air France jet likely disintegrated in flight

Federico Escher And Bradley Brooks Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Air France employees stand outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Wednesday during a service for families of the passengers of Flight 447.
(Full-size photo)

Last calls

French and Brazilian officials have described a “burst” of messages from Flight 447 just before it disappeared:

11 p.m. Brazil time – The pilot sends a manual signal saying the jet was flying through CBs – towering cumulo-nimulus thunderheads.

11:10 p.m. – A cascade of automatic messages indicate trouble: The autopilot had disengaged, stabilizing controls were damaged, flight systems deteriorated.

11:13 p.m. – Messages report more problems: The system that monitors speed, altitude and direction failed. The main flight computer and wing spoilers failed.

11:14 p.m. – The final message indicates a loss of cabin pressure and complete system failure – catastrophic events in a plane that was likely already plunging toward the ocean.

FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil – Military planes located new debris from Air France Flight 447 on Wednesday while investigators focused on a nightmarish ordeal in which the jet broke up over the Atlantic as it flew through a violent storm.

Heavy weather delayed until next week the arrival of deep-water submersibles considered key to finding the black box voice and data recorders that will help answer the question of what happened to the airliner, which disappeared Sunday with 228 people on board. But even with the equipment, the lead French investigator questioned whether the recorders would ever be found in such a deep and rugged part of the ocean.

As the first Brazilian military ships neared the search area, investigators were relying heavily on the plane’s automated messages to help reconstruct what happened to the jet as it flew through towering thunderstorms. They detail a series of failures that end with its systems shutting down, suggesting the plane broke apart in the sky, according to an aviation industry official with knowledge of the investigation.

“This clearly looks like the story of the airplane coming apart,” the airline industry official told the Associated Press. “We just don’t know why it did, but that is what the investigation will show.”

French and Brazilian officials had already announced some of these details, but the more complete chronology was published Wednesday by Brazil’s O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, citing an unidentified airline source, and confirmed by the aviation industry source.

Other experts agreed that the automatic reports of system failures on the plane strongly suggest it broke up in the air, perhaps due to fierce thunderstorms, turbulence, lightning or a catastrophic combination of events.

One fear – terrorism – was dismissed Wednesday by all three countries involved in the search and recovery effort. France’s defense minister and the Pentagon said there were no signs that terrorism was involved, and Brazil’s defense minister said “that possibility hasn’t even been considered.”

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