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Air France Ocean-Crash Debris, Bodies Found by Search Team

Air France 2009 Crash Investigators Find Wreckage Atlantic
Salvage teams work to retrieve debris from the wreckage of Air France flight 447 off the coast of Brazil in this handout photo taken on Monday, June 8, 2009. Source: Forca Aerea Brasileira via Bloomberg

Wreckage and bodies from the 2009 Air France crash were located at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, stoking optimism that investigators may be able to determine the cause of the disaster that killed 228 people.

Debris from Flight 447 was located about 3,900 meters (12,800 feet) below the surface by the Alucia search vessel, said Jean-Paul Troadec, the director of France’s BEA air-crash investigation agency. The discovery follows three failed attempts to locate the aircraft, which went down on June 1, 2009, traveling to Paris Charles De Gaulle airport from Brazil.

The discovery of the Airbus jet fragments “gives hope that information on the causes of the accident, so far unresolved, will be found,” Air France-KLM Group Chief Executive Officer Pierre-Henri Gourgeon said in an statement yesterday.

Locating the wreck, which includes an engine, the fuselage and a piece of the wing, is the most significant breakthrough yet in a 22-month search for the Airbus SAS A330 aircraft and its data recorders that may help explain the crash. Air France and Airbus have both been charged with manslaughter over the accident, the worst in the Paris-based airline’s history.

Many Bodies

Salvage teams may start hauling up the first pieces of debris in the next three weeks, French Transport Minister Thierry Mariani said at a press conference in Paris today. The pieces found so far point to the wreckage being spread over a “relatively limited” flat and sandy zone just north of the aircraft’s last known position, Troadec said at the event.

So far, the flight recorders have not been discovered, and recovering the boxes takes “first priority,” said Alain Bouillard, the BEA chief investigator. The submarines that located the debris also found “many” bodies, he said. Some 13,000 photos have been taken, and not all have been analyzed.

None of the images sighted so far give a clearer explanation of why the aircraft fell from the sky in mid flight, said Bouillard, who will lead the recovery effort. Parts of the landing gear were also discovered, the investigators said.

“This is really good news,” said Paul Hayes, director of air safety at Ascend, a London-based aviation consulting firm . “Without those recorders, the action report on the crash would have to look at a number of scenarios, but you couldn’t say which one was most likely.”

Engine Software

Even if one or both flight recorders aren’t retrieved, Hayes said investigators may still be able to pull information from software in the engine that stores data about the aircraft’s behavior.

The flight recorders store detailed records of the pilots’ conversations as well as technical information. The boxes are designed to withstand heavy impact and emit a signal for several weeks to help recovery.

Troadec said recorders of the type used on the Airbus jet have never spent so long at this depth, raising uncertainty that they will still be in a readable state. A decision on whether to bring up all the debris or just some chunks will depend on how much information can be gleaned from the boxes, he said.

Other black boxes found more than a year after an accident have yielded information. In the case of a South African Airways Boeing Co. 747 that crashed in the Indian Ocean in 1987, a deep-water recovery team found the voice recorder in 16,000 feet of water more than a year later. Both Airbus and Air France have helped fund the cost of the search for the Air France jet.

No Certainty

The BEA has said there can be no certainty about the cause of the accident unless the black boxes are found.

“Airbus welcomes the news of the discovery of the AF447 wreckage,” said Stefan Schaffrath, a spokesman for the Toulouse-based planemaker. “We do hope that this discovery will lead to the retrieval and the reading of the two recorders because these data are essential for the understanding of this accident.”

Air France and Airbus have both said they disagree with the preliminary manslaughter charges that were laid against them last month by a French investigating judge. France is one of the few countries in the world where fatal accidents automatically prompt criminal probes that run alongside investigations by aviation authorities.

The BEA has said a contributing factor to the crash may have been speed sensors, or Pitot tubes, icing up and causing unreliable readings. The agency made the suggestion after reviewing data transmitted in the last minutes before the crash.

Gourgeon said last month there’s no evidence that the crash was caused by the Pitot tubes, which were made by Thales SA. Alain Bouillard, BEA chief investigator, also said last year that speed-sensor failure couldn’t alone explain the crash, and that aviation records in Europe and the U.S. document dozens of incidents where the probes failed and pilots retained control.

Still, within three months of the accident, authorities in Europe and the U.S. ordered carriers to replace Thales Pitot tubes fitted on Airbus A330s with ones made by Goodrich Corp.

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