Ocean search for Air France jet

2009-06-02 07:07

Rio de Janeiro - Two Brazilian aircraft equipped with sensors to peer through the night were early on Tuesday sweeping a remote part of the Atlantic Ocean where an Air France plane mysteriously disappeared, officials said.

An air force Hercules C130, searching for a signal from the Air France plane's emergency beacon, and an Embraer P-99 AWAC jet with onboard radar and infrared gear able to spot bodies in water were flying over an area 1 100km off Brazil's northeastern coast.

That zone - located deep in the Atlantic Ocean almost halfway between the South American and African continents - was determined by the last signal received from Air France flight AF 447: an automatic data signal telling of multiple electric and pressurisation failures.

The Air France Airbus A330 was carrying 216 passengers and 12 crew when it vanished at 02:20 GMT on Monday, four hours into an 11-hour flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. No distress message was sent.

Just over half the passengers were either French or Brazilian. The remainder came from 30 other countries, mostly in Europe.

The accident sent a shudder through France and Brazil, which on Tuesday were sharing the grief of what appeared to be the worst aviation disaster in a decade, and the worst in Air France's 70-year history.

Finding the remains of the aircraft was key to elucidating the enigma of what caused it to come down out in a stretch of water beyond the reach of land-based radar.

Orange marks in the ocean

The lack of answers has given rise to several hypotheses, including Air France's suggestion that its plane was hit by lightning that somehow knocked out its systems - despite modern aircraft being built to survive such a relatively common phenomenon.

The Airbus A330, previously considered a safe transatlantic workhorse, was under scrutiny. The theories of pilot error or extreme turbulence were also raised.

A consensus was forming that a sequence of problems must have been to blame - but what, exactly, would have to be gleaned from the plane's black boxes, if they can be found.

A search all day on Monday involving eight Brazilian air force aircraft and two French military aircraft operating from Africa failed to find any trace of flight AF 447.

Nightfall meant operations were limited to the two specially equipped Brazilian aircraft into daylight on Tuesday, when three Brazilian navy vessels and other aircraft were to take over.

One possible lead came from a pilot on board a Brazilian TAM Airlines flight who passed through the zone half an hour after the ill-fated French jet.

According to a Brazilian air force spokesperson, Colonel Jorge Amaral, the TAM pilot thought he saw orange marks in the ocean, in an area under the responsibility of Senegalese air traffic control.

However, the pilot was unable to make out whether the marks were buoys or flames.