- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil (AP) — Air France has told families of passengers on Flight 447 that the jetliner broke apart and they must abandon hope that anyone survived, a grief counselor said Thursday as military aircraft tried to narrow their search for the remains of the plane.

Air France’s CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, speaking to families in a private meeting, said the plane disintegrated either in the air or when it slammed into the ocean and there were no survivors, according to Guillaume Denoix de Saint-Marc, who was asked by Paris prosecutors to help counsel relatives. The plane, carrying 228 people, disappeared after leaving Rio de Janeiro for Paris on Sunday night.

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. He spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday because he was not authorized to discuss the crash.

“What is clear is that there was no landing. There’s no chance the escape slides came out,” said Denoix de Saint-Marc, who heads a victims’ association for UTA flight 772, shot down in 1989 by Libyan terrorists.

No survivors makes Flight 447 Air France’s deadliest plane crash and the world’s worst commercial air accident since 2001.

Military rescue planes were trying to narrow the search zone Thursday as ships headed to the site to recover wreckage. The “extreme cloudiness” in the search zone also prevented U.S. satellites scanning the area from providing any useful leads, according to French military spokesman Christophe Prazuck.

Brazil’s Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said debris discovered so far was spread over a wide area, with 140 miles (230 kilometers) separating pieces of wreckage. The overall zone is roughly 400 miles (640 kilometers) northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil’s northern coast, where the ocean floor drops as low as 22,950 feet (7,000 meters) below sea level.

The floating debris includes a 23-foot (seven-meter) chunk of plane, but pilots have spotted no sign of survivors, according to Brazilian Air Force spokesman Col. Jorge Amaral.

Brazilian military planes located new debris from Air France Flight 447 Wednesday, after seeing an airline seat and oil slick a day earlier. But Prazuck said Thursday that French planes had made six missions over the area and have yet to spot any wreckage.

“As of today French planes have not found any debris that could have come from the Air France Airbus that disappeared,” he said. “There have been radar detections made by the AWACS (radar plane) … and each time these signals have not corresponded to debris.”

He said, however, French teams have been searching in different places and at different times than the Brazilian search teams.

Three more French overflights were planned for Thursday, Prazuck said. A U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance plane also joined Brazil’s Air Force in trying to spot debris.

Heavy weather delayed until next week the arrival of deep-water submersibles considered key to finding the black box cockpit voice and flight data recorders that will help answer the question of what happened.

The Pourquoi Pas, a French sea research vessel carrying manned and unmanned submarines, is heading from the Azores and will be in the search zone by June 12, Prazuck said. The equipment includes the Nautile, a mini-sub used to explore the undersea wreckage of the Titanic, according to French marine institute Ifremer.

“The clock is ticking on finding debris before they spread out and before they sink or disappear,” Prazuck said. “That’s the priority now, the next step will be to look for the black boxes.”

The lead French investigator has questioned whether the recorders would ever be found in such a deep and rugged part of the ocean.

Families of those aboard mourned worldwide. A Mass was being held in Rio for the victims of the crash and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was among those attending.

The plane’s last automated messages detail a series of failures that end with its systems shutting down, suggesting the plane broke apart in the sky, according to the aviation industry official.

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

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.

Patrick Smith, a U.S. airline pilot and aviation analyst, said the sequence of messages strongly indicated a loss of electrical power, possibly as the result of an extremely strong lightning bolt.

“What jumps out at me is the reported failure of both the primary and standby instruments,” Smith said. “From that point the plane basically becomes unflyable.”

“If they lost control and started spiraling down into a storm cell, the plane would begin disintegrating, the engines and wings would start coming off, the cabin would begin falling apart,” he said.

The pilot of a Spanish airliner flying near where the Airbus is believed to have gone down reported seeing a bright flash of white light that plunged to the ocean, said Angel del Rio, spokesman for the Spanish airline Air Comet.

“Suddenly, off in the distance, we observed a strong and bright flash of white light that took a downward and vertical trajectory and vanished in six seconds,” the pilot wrote in his report, del Rio told the AP.

The Spanish plane was flying from Lima, Peru to Madrid. The pilot said he heard no emergency calls from the plane.

The accident investigation is being done by France, while Brazil is leading the recovery effort.

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

Keller reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro; Alan Clendenning in Sao Paulo; Marco Sibaja in Brasilia; Slobodan Lekic in Brussels; Daniel Woolls in Madrid; and Angela Charlton and Emma Vandore in Paris also contributed to this report.

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