FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil - An airplane seat, a fuel slick and pieces of white debris scattered over three miles of open ocean marked the site in the mid-Atlantic on Tuesday where Air France Flight 447 plunged to its doom, Brazil's defense minister said.
Brazilian military pilots spotted the wreckage, sad reminders bobbing on waves, in the ocean 400 miles (640kilometers) northeast of these islands off Brazil's coast. The plane carrying 228 people vanished Sunday aboutfour hours into its flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
"I can confirm that the five kilometers of debris are those of the Air France plane," Defense Minister NelsonJobim told reporters at a hushed news conference in Rio. He said no bodies had been found and there was no signof life.
The effort to recover the debris and locate the all-important black box recorders, which emit signals for only 30days, is expected to be exceedingly challenging.
"We are in a race against the clock in extremely difficult weather conditions and in a zone where depths reachup to 7,000 meters (22,966 feet)," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told lawmakers in parliament Tuesday.
Brazilian military pilots first spotted the floating debris early Tuesday in two areas about 35 miles (60kilometers) apart, said Air Force spokesman Jorge Amaral. The area is not far off the flight path of Flight 447.
Jobim said the main debris field was found near where the initial signs were spotted.
The cause of the crash will not be known until the black boxes are recovered -- which could take days or weeks.But weather and aviation experts are focusing on the possibility of a collision with a brutal storm that sent windsof 100 mph (160 km/h) straight into the airliner's path.
"The airplane was flying at 500 mph (800 km/h) northeast and the air is coming at them at 100 mph," saidAccuWeather.com senior meteorologist Henry Margusity. "That probably started the process that ended up insome catastrophic failure of the airplane." Towering Atlantic storms are common this time of year near theequator -- an area known as the intertropical convergence zone.
"That's where the northeast trade winds meet the southeast trade winds -- it's the meeting place of the southernhemisphere and the northern hemisphere's weather," Margusity said.
But several veteran pilots of big airliners said it was extremely unlikely that Flight 447's crew intended topunch through a killer storm.
"Nobody in their right mind would ever go through a thunderstorm," said Tim Meldahl, a captain for a major U.S.airline who has flown internationally for 26 years, including more than 3,000 hours on the same A330 jetliner. Pilots often work their way through bands of storms, watching for lightning flashing through clouds ahead andmaneuvering around them, he said.
"They may have been sitting there thinking we can weave our way through this stuff," Meldahl said. "If theywere trying to lace their way in and out of these things, they could have been caught by an updraft." The sameviolent weather that might have led to the crash also could impede recovery efforts.
"Anyone who is going there to try to salvage this airplane within the next couple of months will have to dealwith these big thunderstorms coming through on an almost daily basis," Margusity said. "You're talking about amonumental salvage effort." Remotely controlled submersible crafts will have to be used to recover wreckagesettling so far beneath the ocean's surface.
France dispatched a research ship equipped with unmanned submarines that can explore as deeply as 19,600 feet(6,000 meters).
A U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance plane -- which can fly low over the ocean for 12 hours at a time and hasradar and sonar designed to track submarines underwater -- and a French AWACS radar plane are joining theoperation.
France also has three military patrol aircraft flying over the central Atlantic, two commercial ships reached thefloating debris, and Brazilian navy ships were en route.
"They're very rugged and sophisticated, virtually indestructible." Voss said he expected the recovery process togo quickly.
"I'm hoping they'll have stuff up in a month, if not just a few weeks," he said.
Rescuers were still scanning a vast sweep of ocean. If no survivors are found, it would be the world's worst civilaviation disaster since the November 2001 crash of an American Airlines jetliner in the New York City borough ofQueens that killed 265 people.
Investigators have few clues to help explain what brought the Airbus A330 down. The crew made no distress callbefore the crash, but the plane's system sent an automatic message just before it disappeared, reporting lost cabinpressure and electrical failure.
Brazilian officials described a three-mile strip of wreckage, and have refused to draw any conclusions aboutwhat that pattern means. But Jack Casey, an aviation safety consultant in Washington, D.C., and former accidentinvestigator for airlines and aircraft manufacturers, said it could indicate the Air France jetliner came apartbefore it hit the water.
A debris field of that length that is strung out in a rough line rather than in a circle, especially when an airplanecomes down from a high altitude, "typically indicates it didn't come down in one piece," Casey said. "But it doesn'thave to be a jillion little pieces. It can come down in three or four main pieces, and then the ocean drift takes careof the rest." Casey cautioned it's possible, although less likely, that the plane did not break apart and spread ofthe debris field is due entirely to ocean drift. Since the disaster happened in violent weather, thunderstorms anddeep ocean swells could have scattered the debris during the 32 hours that passed before it was spotted onTuesday.
"The big thing to understand right now is we don't know," said Casey, chief operation officer of Safety OperatingSystems LLB.
"These are tough airplanes. They don't just come apart."