FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil (AP) - An airplane seat, a fuel
slick and pieces of white debris scattered over three miles of open
ocean marked the site in the mid-Atlantic on Tuesday where Air
France Flight 447 plunged to its doom, Brazil's defense minister
Brazilian military pilots spotted the wreckage, sad reminders
bobbing on waves, in the ocean 400 miles (640 kilometers) northeast
of these islands off Brazil's coast. The plane carrying 228 people
vanished Sunday about four hours into its flight from Rio de
Janeiro to Paris.
"I can confirm that the five kilometers of debris are those of
the Air France plane," Defense Minister Nelson Jobim told
reporters at a hushed news conference in Rio. He said no bodies had
been found and there was no sign of life.
The effort to recover the debris and locate the all-important
black box recorders, which emit signals for only 30 days, is
expected to be exceedingly challenging.
"We are in a race against the clock in extremely difficult
weather conditions and in a zone where depths reach up to 7,000
meters (22,966 feet)," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told
lawmakers in parliament Tuesday.
Brazilian military pilots first spotted the floating debris
early Tuesday in two areas about 35 miles (60 kilometers) apart,
said Air Force spokesman Jorge Amaral. The area is not far off the
flight path of Flight 447.
Jobim said the main debris field was found near where the
initial signs were spotted.
The cause of the crash will not be known until the black boxes
are recovered - which could take days or weeks. But weather and
aviation experts are focusing on the possibility of a collision
with a brutal storm that sent winds of 100 mph (160 km/h) straight
into the airliner's path.
"The airplane was flying at 500 mph (800 km/h) northeast and
the air is coming at them at 100 mph," said AccuWeather.com senior
meteorologist Henry Margusity. "That probably started the process
that ended up in some catastrophic failure of the airplane."
Towering Atlantic storms are common this time of year near the
equator - an area known as the intertropical convergence zone.
"That's where the northeast trade winds meet the southeast trade
winds - it's the meeting place of the southern hemisphere and the
northern hemisphere's weather," Margusity said.
But several veteran pilots of big airliners said it was
extremely unlikely that Flight 447's crew intended to punch through
a killer storm.
"Nobody in their right mind would ever go through a
thunderstorm," said Tim Meldahl, a captain for a major U.S.
airline who has flown internationally for 26 years, including more
than 3,000 hours on the same A330 jetliner.
Pilots often work their way through bands of storms, watching
for lightning flashing through clouds ahead and maneuvering around
them, he said.
"They may have been sitting there thinking we can weave our way
through this stuff," Meldahl said. "If they were trying to lace
their way in and out of these things, they could have been caught
by an updraft."
The same violent weather that might have led to the crash also
could impede recovery efforts.
"Anyone who is going there to try to salvage this airplane
within the next couple of months will have to deal with these big
thunderstorms coming through on an almost daily basis," Margusity
said. "You're talking about a monumental salvage effort."
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 19,600 feet (6,000 meters).
A U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance plane - which can fly low
over the ocean for 12 hours at a time and has radar and sonar
designed to track submarines underwater - and a French AWACS radar
plane are joining the operation.
France also has three military patrol aircraft flying over the
central Atlantic, two commercial ships reached the floating debris,
and Brazilian navy ships were en route.
Even at great underwater pressure, the black boxes "can survive
indefinitely almost," said Bill Voss, president and CEO of the
Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia.
"They're very rugged and sophisticated, virtually
Voss said he expected the recovery process to go quickly.
"I'm hoping they'll have stuff up in a month, if not just a few
weeks," he said.
Rescuers were still scanning a vast sweep of ocean. If no
survivors are found, it would be the world's worst civil aviation
disaster since the November 2001 crash of an American Airlines
jetliner in the New York City borough of Queens that killed 265
Investigators have few clues to help explain what brought the
Airbus A330 down. The crew made no distress call before the crash,
but the plane's system sent an automatic message just before it
disappeared, reporting lost cabin pressure and electrical failure.
Brazilian officials described a three-mile strip of wreckage,
and have refused to draw any conclusions about what that pattern
means. But Jack Casey, an aviation safety consultant in Washington,
D.C., and former accident investigator for airlines and aircraft
manufacturers, said it could indicate the Air France jetliner came
apart before it hit the water.
A debris field of that length that is strung out in a rough line
rather than in a circle, especially when an airplane comes down
from a high altitude, "typically indicates it didn't come down in
one piece," Casey said. "But it doesn't have to be a jillion
little pieces. It can come down in three or four main pieces, and
then the ocean drift takes care of the rest."
Casey cautioned it's possible, although less likely, that the
plane did not break apart and spread of the debris field is due
entirely to ocean drift. Since the disaster happened in violent
weather, thunderstorms and deep ocean swells could have scattered
the debris during the 32 hours that passed before it was spotted on
"The big thing to understand right now is we don't know," said
Casey, chief operation officer of Safety Operating Systems LLB.
"These are tough airplanes. They don't just come apart."