- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

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 jetliner broke up over the Atlantic Ocean 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 may 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 navy 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, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the crash.

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 100 mph updraft winds into the jet’s flight path at the time.

Ten minutes later, a cascade of problems began: Automatic messages indicate the autopilot had disengaged, a key computer system 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., signaled 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 Associated Press. “We just don’t know why it did, but that is what the investigation will show.”

French and Brazilian officials already had 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 Air France source, and confirmed to the AP 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.