Air France jet broke apart after ‘computers malfunctioned’

By Calvin Palmer

Air France chief executive officer Pierre-Henri Gourgeon said yesterday the Airbus 330-200 carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris broke apart either in the air or when it slammed into the ocean.

Gourgeon also told families there were no survivors.

The loss of flight AF 447 is Air France’s worst plane crash and the world’s worst commercial air accident since 2001.

Details have emerged of the moments leading up to the disappearance of the Air France jet on Sunday night.

Error messages reportedly suggest the plane was flying too slowly and that two key computers malfunctioned.

Flight data messages provided by an Air France indicate that the pilot, Marc Dubois, reported hitting tropical turbulence at 10:00 p.m. local time. The message said the plane had passed through tall, dense cumulonimbus thunderclouds.

A source close to the investigation said at this point the Airbus A330-200’s speed was “erroneous” — either too fast or too slow. For some unknown reason the plane’s optimal speed had not been reached.

At 10.10 p.m., the messages show Dubois was presented with a series of major failures over a four-minute period before catastrophe struck, according to automatic data signals cited by the Sao Paulo newspaper, Le Jornal da Tarde.

At this time, the automatic pilot was disconnected – either by the pilot or by the plane’s inbuilt security system, which flips to manual after detecting a serious error.

It is unclear whether the pilot wanted to manually change course to avoid a dangerous cloud zone – an extremely difficult maneuver at such high altitude.

At the same moment, another message indicates that the “fly-by-wire” electronic flight system which controls the wing and tail flaps shifted to “alternative law” – an emergency backup system engaged after multiple electricity failures

Two new messages at 10.13 p.m. report electricity breakdowns in the principal and auxiliary flight computers, which provide vital information on altitude, speed and flight direction.

At 10.14 p.m., a final message reads “cabin in vertical speed”, suggesting a sudden loss of cabin pressure, either the cause or the consequence of the plane breaking up in mid-air.

Sources close to the investigation contest this chronology, denying that the two computers providing altitude, speed and directional data malfunctioned.

The suggestion that the pilot gradually lost control of the plane appears to counter reports that the plane exploded in mid-air.

More weight was lent to an explosion after a Spanish pilot in the vicinity at the time reported seeing an “intense white flash”.

“Suddenly we saw in the distance a strong and intense flash of white light, followed by a downward, vertical trajectory which broke up into six segments,” the chief pilot of an Air Comet plane from Lima to Madrid told the Spanish newspaper, El Mundo. He has reported his observations to investigators.

Some experts have supported the theory that the plane exploded, given the wide area where debris has been found.

However, Brazil’s defense minister, Nelson Jobim, said an explosion was “improbable” given the 13-mile trail of aviation fuel spotted on the sea. “If we have fuel slicks, it’s because it didn’t burn,” he said.

Paul-Louis Arslanian, the head of the French air accident bureau in charge of the investigation, also said there were other possible reasons for wide debris area, such as high winds and choppy seas.

Yesterday he warned against hasty “speculation” and said that the search would take time.

Four naval vessels and a tanker are in the area around 400 miles off Brazil’s northeastern coast. Some 11 spotter planes are searching for more debris, after finding a seat and a 23-foot metal object thought to be part of the fuselage. A French mini-submarine will arrive in the zone next week.

[Based on reports by the Associated Press and The Daily Telegraph.]

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