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Wreckage of Missing Air France Airflight Identified; Cause Still Unclear, Black Boxes May Not Be found

Locations in this article:  Buffalo, NY Paris, France

Air France jetScattered debris found in a remote region off the coast of Brazil has officially been identified as the remains of Air France Flight 447, which disappeared late Sunday night while en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.The first signs of wreckage were spotted early Tuesday morning by the Brazilian Air Force, which was scanning an area about 400 miles northeast of the island of Fernando de Noronha.Debris in this area was subsequently verified as belonging to the ill-fated Airbus A330.Later on Tuesday search teams from three nations found several additional debris fields between 35 and 55 miles from the first site. Though several large metal chunks of the plane were discovered along with seats, life jackets and other items, so far no survivors have been found, and investigators hold out little hope that any of the 228 passengers and crew are still alive.Bad weather and rough seas are hampering recovery efforts, and are delaying the arrival of ships carrying submersible craft that will search for the plane’s two black boxes. Brazilian divers were expected to arrive on scene Thursday, while a French ship carrying a remote-controlled submersible would probably not arrive until a couple of days later.Clouds from aboveAfter that, it will be a race against the clock to find and retrieve the devices, which hold vital clues as to the fate of the plane. However, the hunt for the two voice and data recorders could prove very problematic, as the ocean floor is very mountainous in that part of the Atlantic and can reach depths of up to two miles.For this reason, some aviation experts are saying the black boxes may never be found. The two devices are programmed to emit signals for only 30 days after a crash, detectable up to 1 kilometer (about 0.6 miles) away.At the moment, all that investigators have to go on is the series of data messages emitted from the jet in the minutes before it disappeared, which indicate that there was a gradual cascade of electrical and mechanical failures. Investigators estimate that it will take months to collect additional information from the debris, which includes a 23-foot chunk of either the fuselage or wing.The fact that there are several distinct debris fields has led authorities to speculate that the plane may have broken apart in mid-air before crashing into the ocean in separate pieces. The jet was traveling at more than 500 miles per hour at an altitude of 35,000 feet when it disappeared four hours into its journey.Stormy skiesSatellite weather data has shown that the jet’s flight path took it straight into a massive thunderstorm with 100 mph winds and intense electrical activity. One theory is that a lightning strike may have disabled a critical component of the plane such as the electrical system, or ignited a fuel tank.However, late-breaking reports of a possible bomb threat prior to the flight’s takeoff have revived theories that a bomb blast could have caused the plane to crash. An Air France spokesman said Wednesday that the airline received a bomb threat on May 27 for a different Rio-to-Paris flight, but nothing was found after a search of the plane.Though the Pentagon and the French defense minister have both discounted the notion that terrorism was involved, others, including an unnamed Air France pilot, are saying that this could provide an alternate explanation as to why the plane apparently broke apart.The fact that the jet experienced a rapid loss of cabin pressure and broke into several pieces is consistent with previous mid-air bombings, such as the one that took down PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.comRelated links: USA Today, Bloomberg, Associated Press, Daily Mail, IndependentRelated links on