Investigators: No sign plane had problems before take-off

A French AWACS reconnaissance aircraft prepares to leave its Dakar, Senegal base to search the crash zone.
It may be a long time before investigators learn what caused an Air France plane to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean, a French crash investigator said Wednesday.

The Airbus 330, with 216 passengers and 12 crew members on board, disappeared from radar screens, some three hours after it took off from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil en route to Paris. Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon said aircraft encountered heavy turbulence about 02:15 a.m. local time Monday (10:15 p.m. ET Sunday). At that point, the plane’s automatic system initiated a four-minute exchange of messages to the company’s maintenance computers, indicating “several pieces of aircraft equipment were at fault or had broken down.” The jet, which was flying at 35,000 feet and at 521 mph, also sent a warning that it had lost pressure, the Brazilian air force said. Its last known contact occurred at 02:33 a.m., the Brazilian air force spokesman added. Map of Flight AF 447’s flightpath ยป On Tuesday authorities found debris from the jet in the Atlantic Ocean. Officials found two separate debris fields 60 km apart were located about 650 km (400 miles) northeast of the Fernando de Noronha Islands, an archipelago of 21 islands 355 kilometers (220 miles) off the northeast coast of Brazil. Among the wreckage was an airplane seat, metal debris, an orange float, a drum and an oil spill, French officials said. Military planes and ships from Brazil and France will continue their search of the two wreck sites. At a press conference in Paris Wednesday, the head of the French Accident Investigation Bureau, Paul-Louis Arslanian, said there appeared to be no problems with Flight AF 447 before take-off, but that everything had to be “checked and verified.”

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Arslanian promised a thorough investigation but said the flight data and voice recorders may never be found. “This is basically in the middle of the ocean,” Arslanian said. “It is difficult. We will do the best we can with the elements.” Arslanian added that the exact time of the accident was not known, nor whether the captain was at the controls. Investigators were first mobilized on Monday, with four teams set up to conduct the probe. One has been tasked with recovering the wreck and flight recorders, the second group are looking at the aircraft’s maintenance history, the third checking the operations of the plane, and the last group studying the plane’s systems and equipment. The investigation’s team leader, Alain Bouillard, said their first preliminary report would be submitted by the end of June. Meanwhile, a memorial for the victims of the crash, which include 61 people from France, 58 Brazilians, 26 Germans and people from 29 other countries, will take place at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris at 10 a.m. ET (4 p.m. GMT). Brazil has declared three days of mourning.