Air France Flight 447 slammed into the Atlantic Ocean, intact and belly first, at such a high speed that the 228 people on board probably had no time to inflate their life jackets, according to French investigators.
Alain Bouillard, who is leading the probe for French accident agency BEA, said yesterday that they were “very far from establishing the causes of the accident” of June 1.
He added: “The investigation is a big puzzle. Today we only have a few pieces of the puzzle.”
The plane was flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it went down in the Atlantic, 1 500km off Brazil’s mainland and far from radar coverage, SAPA reports.
BEA released its first preliminary findings on the crash yesterday, calling it one of history’s most challenging plane crash investigations, conducted without access to the plane’s flight data and voice recorders.
Problematic speed sensors on the Airbus A330-200 jet were “a factor but not the only one”, Bouillard said. “It is an element but not the cause.”
Other elements, such as the possibility that heavy storms or lightning may have brought down the jet, were also downplayed in BEA’s presentation.
Meteorological data showed the presence of storm clouds in the area the jet would have flown through, but nothing out of the ordinary for the equatorial region in June, Bouillard said, eliminating the theory that the plane could have encountered a storm of unprecedented power.
“Between the surface of the water and 35 000 feet, we don’t know what happened,” Bouillard said.
“In the absence of the flight recorders, it is extremely difficult to draw conclusions.”
But Charles-Henri Tardivat, a lawyer representing victims’ families, said now that the phase of grief had passed, he expected families to be “even more motivated in trying to get answers”.
Marco Tulio Moreno Marques, of Rio de Janeiro, lost his parents in the crash. He said: “They can say a flying saucer hit the plane, but if they don’t find the black boxes, we will never know for certain what happened.”
A burst of automated messages emitted by the plane before it fell gave rescuers only a vague location to begin their search, and the chances of finding the flight recorders are falling daily as the signals they emit fade.
Without them, the full causes of the tragic accident may never be known.
One of the messages indicates that the plane was getting incorrect speed information from the external monitoring instruments, which could have destabilised control systems.
Analysis of the 600-odd pieces of the jet that had been recovered indicated that the plane “was not destroyed in flight” and appeared to have hit the water intact and belly first, gathering speed as it dropped thousands of feet, Bouillard said.
He also said investigators had found “neither traces of fire nor traces of explosives”.
Shortly after the crash, aviation experts indicated that fractures revealed during autopsies of the victims along with the large pieces of wreckage suggested that the plane broke up in the air.
Bouillard said life vests found among the wreckage were not inflated, suggesting that passengers were not prepared for a crash-landing in the water.
The pilots apparently also did not send any Mayday calls.