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Investigator says missing jet’s black boxes may never be found

Jun 03, 2009, FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil (Source: APR) - Military planes and ships struggled through high seas and heavy winds Wednesday toward the bobbing wreckage of an Air France jet, while an investigator said the black boxes may never be found in the depths of the Atlantic.


June 3, 2009
By Carey Fredericks

Jun 03, 2009, FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil (Source: APR) – Military planes and ships struggled through high seas and heavy winds Wednesday toward the bobbing wreckage of an Air France jet, while an investigator said the black boxes may never be found in the depths of the Atlantic.

Rescue boats from several countries were sailing toward the site to start the recovery as aviation experts tried to determine why the Airbus plane carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on Sunday night ended up in the sea.

New debris, including what appears to be a large chunk of the plane, and a 20-kilometre-long oil slick were found early Wednesday, Brazilian air force spokesman Col. Jorge Amaral said. Rescuers have still found no signs of life.

The debris was discovered about 90 kilometres south where searchers a day earlier found an airplane seat, a fuel slick, an orange life vest and pieces of white debris. The location of the new debris is consistent with where experts say currents in that part of the Atlantic would push anything on the surface. The original debris was found roughly 650 kilometres northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northern coast.

The recovery effort is expected to be exceedingly challenging. Storm season is starting in the area and water depths sink down to 7,000 metres. Four boats and a tanker ship were en route to the scene but Brazil lacks equipment to scour the ocean floor, a Brazilian navy spokeswoman said Wednesday. Brazil was leading the search for wreckage, while France took charge of the crash investigation.

“The seas in the area are high, and that is slowing the arrival of our ships,'' she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have four divers on the way, but the first of them will not get to the scene until midday Thursday.''

The official said if the black boxes are at the bottom of the sea – five kilometres deep in some nearby areas – there was nothing the Brazil navy could do as they do not have the special remotely controlled subs needed to withstand the pressure at the ocean's bottom. If the black boxes have sunk, she said, “We don't have the equipment to look for them.''

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. Remotely controlled submersible crafts will have to be used to recover wreckage settling so far beneath the ocean's surface.

France dispatched a research ship equipped with unmanned submarines that can explore as deeply as 6,000 metres, but that ship
and another French military ship were not expected to reach the area
until the end of the week, French military spokesman Christophe
Prazuck said.

In Paris, the head of France's accident investigation agency, Paul-Louis Arslanian, said he was “not optimistic'' that rescuers could even recover the black boxes and 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.''

The reason for the crash remains unclear, with fierce thunderstorms, lightning or a catastrophic combination of causes as possible theories. France's defence minister and the U.S. Defence Department have said there were no signs that terrorism was involved.

French investigators flew to Rio to work with Air France, Airbus and meteorologists to determine what happened  – and in particular to study a flurry of messages sent in the last few minutes before the
plane lost contact.

The crew made no distress call before the crash, but the plane's system sent automatic messages just before it disappeared, reporting
lost cabin pressure and electrical failure.