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Navy ships seek to recover Air France plane debris

Fernando De Noronha – Navy ships on Wednesday sped toward debris from an Air France plane that fell into the Atlantic with 228 people on board, seeking to recover clues to the jet’s mysterious crash.

The naval operation a day after the debris was spotted off Brazil’s coast included two mini-submarines to recover the plane’s black box flight recorders — if they can be found in the depths of the Atlantic.

Both Brazil’s defence minister and a French military official have said there was no doubt the debris was from the mysterious crash.

The first of the Brazilian naval vessels was to arrive early Wednesday, joining three cargo ships from France and the Netherlands that were rerouted to the area after debris from Air France flight AF 447 was spotted.

A Brazilian air force plane fitted with night-vision sensors has been sweeping the zone some 500 kilometres (300 miles) northeast of Brazil’s Fernando do Noronha archipelago, itself 400 kilometres from the mainland, officials said.

Another three air force aircraft were to be deployed after dawn, when visual sweeps would also be made for signs of bodies.

Defence Minister Nelson Jobim on Tuesday confirmed that the spot in Brazilian waters was the crash site of the Air France Airbus A330.

"There are no doubts" a five-kilometre strip of floating debris – including cables, plane components and fuel slicks – marked the spot where the full flight went down, he told reporters.

A top French military official on Wednesday made similar comments.

"While formal confirmation must still be obtained by recovering debris and carrying out technical analysis, there is no longer any room for doubt," Captain Christophe Prazuck told AFP.

"The operation is now changing from being an aerial mission covering a vast expanse of the ocean to a naval operation focusing on a much more limited area."

The evidence extinguished any lingering hopes of finding survivors and confirmed the worst civil aviation accident since 2001, when an American Airlines jet crashed in New York killing all 260 people on board.

Brazil on Tuesday announced three days of national mourning. Catholic and Muslim services were to be held in Paris on Wednesday, including one in Notre-Dame cathedral to be attended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The flight was four hours into its 11-hour voyage from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it issued automated data alerts indicating multiple electrical and pressurization failures and ceased contact with controllers.

The pilots did not issue a mayday distress call, leaving the accident a mystery — one that only the plane’s black boxes can elucidate, if they can be found in Atlantic waters as deep as 6,000 meters (19,700 feet).

Brazil’s air force said France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analyses (BEA) was responsible for the investigation into what was Air France’s worst accident in its 70-year history.

A team of BEA officials were already at work in Brazil, it said.

Any human remains located would be taken by ship to Fernando de Noronha, where they would be flown out on air force aircraft.

More than half of those travelling on the Air France jet were either French or Brazilian. The others came from 30 countries, mostly in Europe.

The 216 passengers included 126 men, 82 women, seven children and a baby. The crew comprised 11 French nationals and one Brazilian.

The 58-year-old French captain had been flying for Air France since 1988, the airline said.

Air France has suggested the four-year-old plane could have been struck by lightning — a fairly common hazard that by itself should not knock out a modern airliner.

However, such strikes can prove dangerous when coupled with other problems, such as violent turbulence.

Other theories advanced by experts include pilot error, mechanical defects or even the possibility of terrorism.

"No hypothesis is being favoured at the moment," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday.

A French ship was on its way to the zone, carrying two mini-submarines capable of operating at depths of 6,000 meters, which is also the limit aircraft black boxes can survive for up to 30 days.

But any recovery would be extremely difficult, not only because of the depth, but also because of powerful currents and storms in the zone.

"To find the plane, you’ll need ships equipped with a special sonar, and possibly also rescue submarines – it’s an enormous undertaking," Commander Ronaldo Jenkins, safety coordinator for Brazil’s airline association, told AFP.

AFP / Expatica