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article imageAF447: Search for Flight Recorders amid new clues and theories

By Michael Cosgrove     Jun 11, 2009 in World
The hunt for the crashed Air France plane’s voice and data recorders has begun in earnest. Elsewhere, new evidence and analysis have given renewed impetus to the possibility that the plane broke up in flight. The body count is now at 41.
The French nuclear attack submarine, the Emeraude, arrived yesterday at the crash zone in the Atlantic according to French daily 'Le Figaro' and has begun its role in the search for the recorders in waters that are so deep that they are at the limit of what current recorder locating material is capable of.
They are believed to be in an area where the sea bed contains steep slopes and crevices, rather like mountains, at an average depth of around 15 000 feet.
The Emeraud will patrol a defined area at slow speeds and in a methodical up-and-down manner which is similar to that used by a combine harvester in a field. It will use its sonar and other instruments to try and pinpoint any large fuselage sections that may be on the sea bed and it will also try to pick up signals from the recorders’ underwater locater beacons, which are transmitting devices which emit acoustic pulses, called ‘pings.’
A locator beacon’s batteries will permit it to transmit for around 30 days.
Working with the Emeraude are two French tugs which have been fitted with two U.S. Navy “Towed Pinger Locaters.” These extremely sophisticated devices are designed to be attached to ships and trail behind them. They can detect locater beacons to a depth of 20 000 feet.
Now that these ships are operational, investigators are more confident that the recorders may be found before they stop emitting pulses.
If the boxes are located, they would have to be brought to the surface.
That job would be done by one of three highly-specialised underwater retrieval robots aboard another French ship, the research vessel the Pourquoi Pas. It is on its way to the crash zone after having been detoured from its planned research mission.
While the French concentrate on the recorders, the Brazilians are in charge of co-ordinating the search for and recovery of floating debris and bodies. This work is being done by five Brazilian ships and fourteen planes; twelve Brazilian and two French.
The search area being combed has been more narrowly defined according to investigation sources. Debris trajectory has now been backtracked to the time and likely place of the accident. That has been done by analysing sea and wind currents since the crash as well as the float characteristics of each object discovered.
The information will be updated as more precise analysis of objects is carried out.
Up to now a total of 41 bodies have been recovered and are progressively being brought back to land for identification, forensic testing and other analysis.
The discovery of the body and plane parts and their position when found, as well as the progressive pinpointing of the crash site, are yielding new clues to what may have happened. Also of capital importance in the search for clues is the analysis of those bodies and plane parts.
The fact that so many bodies have thus far been found, many of them apparently more or less intact, is an indication that they may not have been in the passenger compartment of the plane when they hit the water. This is because the bodies of those passengers still inside the plane would probably have disintegrated along with the plane itself as it hit the water.
In other words, this information is being interpreted as being an indication that the plane may have broken up in flight, in which case a certain number of victims may have been thrown clear of the plane on its way down.
Other clues reside in the fact that several large pieces of the plane have been found floating on the surface and in relatively intact condition. This would indicate that they may have “feathered” down to the surface more slowly than if they had been attached to the plane. Some of those pieces are said to show signs of having broken off cleanly from the plane, that which would not have been the case if they had been attached to a plane hitting the water.
This information is also being taken as being indicative of a possible break-up in the air.
This can be seen in this photo of the plane’s tail fin, which is relatively undamaged and shows signs of a ‘clean’ break off.
Wreckage found of the Flight 447
Navy teams derive sea wreckage of the plane of Air France, which had disappeared when the route Rio de Janeiro-Paris
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Other clues to the possibility of the plane breaking up will emerge when the precise location of all plane parts and bodies when found has been analysed and compared to wind and current data in order to establish their probable separation distance upon hitting the water.
The plane’s speed sensors, called ‘Pitot tubes’ are still being considered as a possible contributing factor to the crash. They have been known to ice up or be blocked with water in hard rain, thus rendering the data they send to the plane’s pilots erroneous and contradictory. Contradictory airspeed data has also been known to affect on-board computers
The Pitot tubes are being replaced in an accelerated maintenance procedure, and Air France is still expressing its caution vis-a-vis their implication in the crash..
Finally, both Airbus and the DEA, the French body investigating the crash, have denied rumours that A330-200 planes (AF447 was an A330-220) are to be officially grounded.
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