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Heavy seas hamper search for Flight 447 debris

June 4, 2009, FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil (AP, By Federico  Escher and Alan Clendenning) - Military planes located more debris from an Air France jet on Wednesday as the first navy ship arrived at the scene in the mid-Atlantic.


June 4, 2009
By Carey Fredericks

June 4, 2009, FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil (AP, By Federico
Escher and Alan Clendenning) – Military planes located more debris
from an Air France jet on Wednesday as the first navy ship arrived
at the scene in the mid-Atlantic. But high seas and heavy winds
slowed the recovery effort and delayed the arrival of crucial
deep-water submersibles.

Search vessels from several countries pushed toward the floating
debris, including a seven-metre chunk of plane and a
20-kilometre-long oil slick that Brazilian pilots spotted from the
air. Rescuers have still found no signs of life from the plane that
was carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, air force
spokesman Col. Jorge Amaral said.

A Brazilian navy spokeswoman said a patrol boat was close to one
debris field after spending two days pushing through rough weather
to reach the site, but had not yet retrieved any wreckage.

A navy frigate was expected to arrive later in the day, said the
spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with
policy.

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Flight 447 disappeared minutes after flying into an extremely
dangerous band of storms Sunday night, but what exactly caused its
electrical systems and cabin pressure to fail remains a mystery. The
“black box'' cockpit recorders could be kilometres below the
surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

If they can't be recovered, investigators will have to focus on
maintenance records and a burst of messages sent by the plane just
before it disappeared.

French and Brazilian officials had already announced some details
of these messages, but a more complete chronology was published
Wednesday by Brazil's O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, citing an
unidentified Air France source, and was confirmed to The Associated
Press by an aviation industry official with knowledge of the
investigation.

The burst of automatic messages sent from the jetliner before it
disappeared with 228 people on board suggests it probably broke
apart in the skies and fell to the ocean in pieces, said the
official, who isn't authorized to discuss details of the probe
publicly.

The pilot sent a manual signal at 11 p.m. local time saying he
was flying through an area of “CBs'' _ black, electrically charged
cumulonimbus clouds that come with violent winds and lightning.

Satellite data has shown that towering thunderheads were sending
160 km/h updraft winds into the jet's flight path just then.

Ten minutes later, a cascade of problems began: Automatic
messages indicate the autopilot had disengaged, a key computer
system had switched to alternative power, and controls needed to
keep the plane stable had been damaged. An alarm sounded indicating
the deterioration of flight systems.

Three minutes after that, more automatic messages reported the
failure of systems to monitor air speed, altitude and direction.
Control of the main flight computer and wing spoilers failed as
well..

The last automatic message, at 11:14 p.m., indicated loss of
cabin pressure and complete electrical failure _ catastrophic events
in a plane that was likely already plunging toward the ocean.

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

Air France spokesman Nicolas Petteau referring questions about
the report to the French accident investigation agency, BEA, whose
spokesman Martine Del Bono said the agency won't comment.

Brazil's Defence Minister Nelson Jobim also declined to comment
on the report, saying “that investigation is being done by France,
Brazil's only responsibility is to find and pick up the pieces.''

France's defence minister and the Pentagon have said there were
no signs that terrorism was involved, and Jobim said “that
possibility hasn't even been considered.''

The fierce thunderstorms, turbulence, lightning or a catastrophic
combination of events could have broken apart the plane, aviation
experts have said. And while the messages reported by the newspaper
don't indicate why the aircraft went down, they strongly suggest it
broke apart in the air, said Bill Voss, president and CEO of the
Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.

“These are telling us the story of the crash. They are not
explaining what happened to cause the crash,'' Voss said. “This is
the documentation of the seconds when control was lost and the
aircraft started to break up in air.''

Voss stressed that the messages alone were not enough to
understand why the Air France jet went down, noting that the black
boxes will have “far more parameters'' that could determine the
cause.

The new debris was discovered about 90 kilometres south of where
searchers a day earlier found an airplane seat, a fuel slick, an
orange buoy and pieces of white debris. The original debris was
found roughly 640 kilometres northeast of the Fernando de Noronha
islands off Brazil's northern coast, an area where the ocean floor
drops as low as 7,000 metres below sea level.

Brazil was leading the search, while France took charge of the
crash investigation, working with Air France, Airbus and
meteorologists to determine what happened.

Brazilian divers were expected to arrive Thursday, but if the
black boxes are at the bottom of the sea, their recovery will have
to wait for the arrival early next week of a French research ship
with remotely controlled submersibles that can explore as deeply as
6,000 metres.

The sturdy black boxes _ voice and data recorders _ are built to
give off signals for at least 30 days, even underwater, and could
keep their contents indefinitely.

But the head of France's accident investigation agency,
Paul-Louis Arslanian, said in Paris that he is “not optimistic''
about recovering the recorders _ and that investigators should be
prepared to continue the probe without them.

“It is not only deep, it is also mountainous,'' he said. “We
might find ourselves blocked at some point by the lack of material
elements.''

A French AWACS radar plane and two other French military planes
flew Wednesday over the area where debris was found to better narrow
down the search zone. A U.S. navy P-3C Orion surveillance plane _
which can fly low over the ocean for 12 hours at a time _ also
joined the operation.

Arslanian said investigators didn't have enough information to
determine whether the plane broke up in the air or upon impact with
the sea, and that in the absence of black box data, they are
studying maintenance and other records.

“For the moment, there is no sign that would lead us to believe
that the aircraft had a problem before it took off,'' Arslanian
said.