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Air France jet probably broke apart above ocean

FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil - Military planes located newdebris from Air France Flight 447 on Wednesday while investigatorsfocused on a nightmarish ordeal in which the jetliner broke up overthe Atlantic as it flew through a violent storm.

Heavy weather delayed until next week the arrival of deep-watersubmersibles considered key to finding the black box voice and datarecorders that will help answer the question of what happened tothe airliner, which disappeared Sunday with 228 people on board.But even with the equipment, the lead French investigatorquestioned whether the recorders would ever be found in such a deepand rugged part of the ocean.

As the first Brazilian military ships neared the search area,investigators were relying heavily on the plane's automatedmessages to help reconstruct what happened to the jet as it flewthrough towering thunderstorms. They detail a series of failuresthat end with its systems shutting down, suggesting the plane brokeapart in the sky, according to an aviation industry official withknowledge of the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymitybecause he was not authorized to discuss the crash.

The pilot sent a manual signal at 11 p.m. local time saying hewas flying through an area of "CBs" -- black, electrically chargedcumulonimbus clouds that come with violent winds and lightning.Satellite data has shown that towering thunderheads were sending100 mph updraft winds into the jet's flight path at thetime.

Ten minutes later, a cascade of problems began: Automaticmessages indicate the autopilot had disengaged, a key computersystem switched to alternative power, and controls needed to keepthe plane stable had been damaged. An alarm sounded indicating thedeterioration of flight systems.

Three minutes after that, more automatic messages reported thefailure of systems to monitor air speed, altitude and direction.Control of the main flight computer and wing spoilers failed aswell.

The last automatic message, at 11:14 p.m., signaled loss ofcabin pressure and complete electrical failure -- catastrophicevents in a plane that was likely already plunging toward theocean.

"This clearly looks like the story of the airplane comingapart," the airline industry official told The Associated Press."We just don't know why it did, but that is what the investigationwill show."

French and Brazilian officials had already announced some ofthese details, but the more complete chronology was publishedWednesday by Brazil's O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, citing anunidentified Air France source, and confirmed to the AP by theaviation industry source.

Air France spokesman Nicolas Petteau referred questions aboutthe messages to the French accident investigation agency, BEA,whose spokesman Martine Del Bono said the agency won't comment.Brazil's Defense Minister Nelson Jobim also declined to comment,saying that the accident "investigation is being done by France;Brazil's only responsibility is to find and pick up the pieces."

Other experts agreed that the automatic reports of systemfailures on the plane strongly suggest it broke up in the air,perhaps due to fierce thunderstorms, turbulence, lightning or acatastrophic combination of events.

"These are telling us the story of the crash. They are notexplaining what happened to cause the crash," said Bill Voss,president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria,Va. "This is the documentation of the seconds when control waslost and the aircraft started to break up in air."

Voss stressed that the messages alone were not enough tounderstand why the Air France jet went down, noting that the blackboxes will have far more information to help determine the cause.

One fear -- terrorism -- was dismissed Wednesday by all threecountries involved in the search and recovery effort. France'sdefense minister and the Pentagon said there were no signs thatterrorism was involved, and Jobim said "that possibility hasn'teven been considered."

A U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance plane, a French AWACS radarplane and two other French military planes joined Brazil's AirForce in trying to spot debris and narrow the search zone.

Brazil's Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said debris discovered sofar was spread over a wide area, with some 140miles separating pieces of wreckage they have spotted. Thefloating debris includes a 23-foot chunk of plane anda 12-mile-long oil slick, but pilots havespotted no signs of survivors, Air Force spokesman Col. JorgeAmaral said.

"Oil stains on the water might exclude the possibility of anexplosion, because there was no fire," Defense Minister NelsonJobim told reporters Wednesday.

The new debris was discovered about 55 miles south of where searchers a day earlier found an airplane seat, afuel slick, an orange life vest and pieces of white debris. Theoriginal debris was found roughly 400 miles northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northerncoast, an area where the ocean floor drops as low as 22,950 feet below sea level.

Brazil lacks the equipment needed to reach the ocean floor. Ifthe black boxes are at the bottom of the sea, their recovery willhave to wait for the arrival early next week of a French researchship with remotely controlled submersibles that can explore asdeeply as 19,600 feet.

The sturdy black boxes -- voice and data recorders -- are built togive off signals for at least 30 days, even underwater, and couldkeep their contents indefinitely.

But the head of France's accident investigation agency,Paul-Louis Arslanian, said in Paris that he is "not optimistic"about recovering the recorders -- and that investigators should beprepared to continue the probe without them.

"It is not only deep, it is also mountainous," he said. "Wemight find ourselves blocked at some point by the lack of materialelements."

Arslanian said investigators didn't have enough information todetermine whether the plane broke up in the air or upon impact withthe sea, and that in the absence of black box data, they arestudying maintenance and other records.

"For the moment, there is no sign that would lead us to believethat the aircraft had a problem before it took off," Arslaniansaid.

He said investigators did not know the exact time of theaccident or whether the chief pilot was at the controls when theplane went down. Pilots on long-haul flights often take turns atthe controls to remain alert.

If no survivors are found, it would be the deadliest crash inAir France's history, and the world's worst civil aviation disastersince the November 2001 crash of an American Airlines jetliner inthe New York City borough of Queens that killed 265 people.

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Bradley Brooks wrote from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Presswriters Alan Clendenning in Sao Paulo; Marco Sibaja in Brasilia;Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Belgium; Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin;Emma Vandore in Bourget, France; and Angela Charlton in Paris alsocontributed to this report.

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