Jet Was Intact As It Hit Water

Investigators' Findings Fail to Reveal Cause of Air France Crash in Atlantic

An Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean during a thunderstorm on June 1, 2009, with 228 passengers and crew on board.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 3, 2009

PARIS, July 2 -- French crash investigators said Thursday they have determined that an Air France jetliner that plunged from a stormy sky on June 1 was intact when it smacked belly-first into the Atlantic Ocean at high speed, killing all 228 people aboard, but acknowledged they still have no clear idea what caused the disaster.

Alain Bouillard, who is heading a probe by the French Investigation and Analysis Bureau, told a news conference that findings so far indicate that the four-year-old Airbus A330-200 broke into pieces only when it hit the surface of the water. No inflated life jackets have been found in a month of searching, he added, indicating that the 216 passengers and 12 crew members on Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris were probably unaware during their final minutes that they were speeding from 35,000 feet toward the deadly crash.

But the key question -- what happened to cause the plane to plummet without any known warning -- was left wrapped in mystery and conjecture, offering nothing to reassure the thousands of summer holiday travelers scheduled to board one of hundreds of similar Airbus A330 long-haul passenger jets in use by airlines around the world.

"Today we are indeed far from establishing the causes of the accident," Bouillard said at the bureau's headquarters near Le Bourget airport on the outskirts of Paris.

The apparent failure of small devices affixed to the plane's skin to gauge airspeed, called Pitot tubes, was "a factor," Bouillard said, but only one of several, including high winds, thunder, lightning and other possible equipment failures or human errors that remain unknown. The devices had given trouble, principally by icing up, on a number of Airbus planes, and since the crash, Air France has updated all its A330 fleet with a newer model of the device.

A group of victims' families, dissatisfied with the flow of information from Air France, issued a letter to the French carrier's management, seeking answers to a series of specific technical questions. Most of the questions centered on a burst of automatically generated messages from the aircraft's computers during the final minutes of flight.

According to Air France, the alerts reported failures in several systems, including electricity and speed readings forwarded to instruments in the cockpit that suggested the pilots may not have known their true speed as the plane was being buffeted by the storm. Several French airline pilots have said this could be a key point because correct speed is essential during rough weather.

In addition, the letter asked Air France to outline its procedures governing a pilot's decision whether to fly through or around a storm system such as the one encountered that night over the Atlantic. The letter was composed with the help of Stewarts Law, a British firm specialized in air disasters, news reports said, suggesting that some of the families are preparing lawsuits against Air France or Airbus, the plane's manufacturer, or at least strengthening their positions for upcoming negotiations on settlements.

"The idea is to obtain the maximum of information to work out, using our expertise in aeronautics, a scenario for the accident and put forward possible negligence," explained a Stewarts lawyer, Charles-Henri Tardivat, on the Web site of the newspaper Le Monde.

Bouillard presented what was described as a report on the first stage of the investigation, suggesting that more reports would be issued as the probe continues. But with the plane's flight recorders still not found, he added, it will be difficult if not impossible to gain a clear picture of what happened during the critical last minutes high over the Atlantic about 400 miles northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northeast tip.

French, U.S. and Spanish ships, including a French submarine, have continued to sweep the ocean for signals from the black boxes, which are equipped with radio emitters that typically last about 30 days. But the Atlantic is 9,000 to 15,000 feet deep at that point, between Brazil and West Africa, and the seabed is a rough terrain of mountains and valleys, making the search difficult.

Bouillard said French navy and other ships were prepared to continue their efforts for 10 days in hope that the emitters will last longer than scheduled. The Brazilian navy, which did most of the initial searching, called off its operations several days ago.

About 640 objects have been pulled from the water, often in rough seas. They included 51 corpses and a variety of pieces from the airplane, including seats, strips of metal and a nearly intact rear stabilizer, the report said.

The condition of some of the larger pieces, having been broken by a force coming from top to bottom, also indicated the plane crashed into the water at high speed, Bouillard said. Investigators said earlier that there was no indication of an explosion, meaning terrorism was not a likely cause of the crash.

French authorities have not received results of autopsies, which are being handled by Brazilian authorities, he said. Once results are in hand, he added, investigators may find some additional clues to what happened.

Despite the lingering mystery about what led to the plane's sudden plunge, Bouillard said he saw no reason at this point to ground the twin-engine Airbus A330 or for passengers not to board such aircraft with confidence. "As far as I am concerned, there is no problem flying these aircraft," he told reporters.

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