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Air Algerie Crash Examiners Says Jet Disintegrated on Impact

The Air Algerie jetliner that crashed in Mali killing 116 people last month disintegrated when it hit the ground, though a “deliberate act” of sabotage can’t yet be ruled out, safety experts said today.

A dysfunctional cockpit voice recorder is slowing the probe as work continues to establish if stormy weather in the area on the fringes of the Sahara desert was to blame for the tragedy, the BEA, France’s air-accident investigator, said today.

Analysis of so-called black-boxes from the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 plane will have to rely on the flight-data recorder in the absence of cockpit recordings, together with radio transmissions, weather reports and physical evidence. The civil aviation bureau in Mali, a former French colony, has turned to the BEA for assistance following the July 24 crash in which 110 passengers died, 50 of them French citizens.

While investigators haven’t ruled out foul play, the plane veered from its planned path as if to avoid storms known to be present and descended rapidly, falling 1,600 feet in its last second before shattering as it hit the ground. An initial report on findings will be published in mid-September.

“The impact was extremely violent,” Remi Jouty, director of the BEA or Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses, said in a press briefing at Le Bourget outside Paris. The jet’s last recorded speed was 740 kilometers an hour (460 miles per hour), he said.

Maintenance Question

Investigators will also examine why the cockpit voice-recorder failed and what kind of maintenance was performed on the black boxes before the flight. The data recorder should still provide information across dozens of parameters including the plane’s position and altitude, engine performance, flap settings and how the autopilot was set up.

Shortly after the accident, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told journalists that the pilots had sought permission to turn back to Burkina Faso, where the service bound for Algeria had originated, because of bad weather.

Jouty said today he couldn’t immediately confirm what the pilot said, since those exchanges that were recorded haven’t been fully studied, though after the jet took off it made “moderate route deviations” typical of maneuvers aimed at circumventing a storm system.

While the crew’s words to each other won’t be available for analysis because of the failed voice recorder, the BEA will examine their conversations with the ground and other planes flying. “We are trying to figure out what the crew was doing, decided or could have asked for,” he said.

N’Faly Cisse, president of the accident investigation commission of the Mali civil aviation bureau, said future comment will come from his office, which is leading the probe.

Flight AH5017’s loss capped a week of aviation disasters that began with the downing of a Malaysian Air Boeing Co. 777 over eastern Ukraine following a suspected missile strike, killing 298 people, and included the loss of an ATR-72 turboprop in poor weather in Taiwan, which left 48 dead.

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