x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Airbus hit the sea 'belly first'

The Air France Airbus that crashed on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris a month ago did not break up in the sky, investigators say.

PARIS // The Air France Airbus that crashed on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris a month ago did not break up in the sky above the Atlantic but plunged into the ocean "belly first" at high speed, a preliminary report from French aviation accident investigators stated yesterday. The Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses (BEA) said no distress signal was received from AF 447 before the loss of the aircraft, killing all 228 people on board, and no problem had been reported by the crew. No inflated life jackets had been recovered from the sea, which investigators say showed that passengers were not prepared for an emergency landing. No trace of explosives had been found.

As expected, the BEA's earliest findings, while firmly indicating that the plane broke up on impact with the water rather than when airborne, leave more questions unanswered than answered. The BEA's investigators, along with relatives of those who died, the majority of whom were French or Brazilian, are left to continue searching for an explanation of the sudden and catastrophic disappearance of the Airbus 330-200 during stormy weather, which experts say should not have been enough to threaten a modern, sophisticated jet with highly experienced pilots at the controls.

Although the accepted period during which signals are emitted by beacons from the aircraft's data recording devices, or black boxes, expired this week, Alain Bouillard, head of the BEA inquiry, said the search for them would continue until July 10. A second stage of research, using unspecified different methods, would begin after that date, he said. Mr Bouillard told a news conference at Le Bourget, near Paris: "The aircraft was not destroyed in flight. It appears to have struck the surface of the water in the direction of flight with a strong vertical acceleration."

Visual inspections of debris taken from the sea and examined in Brazil showed that the plane struck the sea with the underside of its fuselage, a theory supported by the deformation of cabin floors from bottom upwards. The inquiries had revealed "no trace of fire nor trace of explosive", he added. Fifty-one bodies of passengers and crew have so far been recovered during the painstaking search of large stretches of the Atlantic and Mr Bouillard said all of these had been transferred from the ocean to Brazilian territory. The BEA's first report also disclosed that more than 640 elements of wreckage, from all parts of the aircraft from the tip of the cockpit to the rear, had also been found.

The chances of finding more bodies are considered poor. The initial conclusions will do little to ease the anguish of victims' families. The Association for the Truth, Support and Defence of AF 447 Victims, former by relatives of French passengers, is highly critical of the lack of information released by Air France and wrote yesterday to Pierre-Henri Gourgeou, chief executive officer of the airline, with a list of questions on which it seeks responses to "reassure the victims' families about the transparency of the investigation and the good faith of Air France on this issue".

The association is querying Air France's security devices, the techniques used in the event of lightning and means of emergency communication. The letter, drafted with the assistance of Stewarts, a British law firm specialising in aviation disasters, is necessarily of a highly technical nature, said Christophe Guilott-Noel, the leader of the association who lost a brother in the crash. "We want concrete, factual answers to the questions."

Some speculation about possible causes of the disaster has suggested that the pilots may have been misled by faulty information from old speed monitors due for replacement. Under severe criticism, Air France has subsequently speeded up a programme to install updated sensors. Mr Bouillard said the sensors may have been a factor in events leading to the loss of the Airbus but did not cause the accident.

But he admitted that the BEA was still a long way from establishing what did cause the aircraft to fall out of the sky. "Between the surface of the water and 35,000 feet high, we do not know what took place," Mr Bouillard said. French authorities have previously suggested that the "Pitot" tubes by which crew monitor air speed may have been blocked. Mr Bouillard's recognition of a "strong suspicion" of inconsistencies in the measurement of speed will add to relatives' concerns despite his insistence that this was not the cause of the crash.

Kieran Daly, the editor of an internet news service, Air Transport Intelligence, told the UK news agency, the Press Association: "There has been a history of problems with Pitot tubes on A330s. Getting wrong information on speed is quite a serious thing to happen and the problem is not necessarily immediately obvious to the flight crew." However, he agreed with Mr Bouillard that there was "a very long way" to go in trying to explain what went wrong with AF 447.

"It may be that we'll never know what happened to this plane. Then you would have a situation where a state-of-the-art aircraft has been lost in the middle of a flight for no known reason and that's very, very worrying." * With additional reporting by the Associated Press crandall@thenational.ae