Air France Flight 447 was intact when it hit the Atlantic Ocean, according to the first report released by the French accident bureau investigating the disaster in which all 228 onboard lost their lives.
The Airbus A330 did not break up in flight, and neither was it in a nose or tail-down dive, according to investigators. A study of 660 pieces of debris showed that it had shattered only when it hit the sea belly-first. “The plane was not destroyed while it was in flight,” said Alain Bouillard, the chief investigators. “It seems to have hit the surface of the water in level attitude and with a strong vertical acceleration.”
According to experts, an aircraft falling belly first is likely to be in a stall or recovering from one. Aircraft diving fully out of control from high altitude usually break up before reaching the ground.
This could indicate that the crew had retained some control after the aircraft plummeted in just over four minutes from its cruising altitude of 35,000ft.
Of the 51 bodies recovered so far, none were wearing life-jackets so they had not been prepared for an emergency, said Mr Bouillard. There was no way of knowing if they were conscious when the aircraft hit the water. The Brazilian authorities so far have refused the investigators access to post-mortem examination results from the bodies.
The investigators confirmed that either ice particles or water blocked the plane’s pitot tubes, upsetting the air data computers and giving faulty speed readings. Flying an aircraft through a tropical storm at night without basic flight information would have proved virtually impossible. Any variation outside the acceptable speed range would have led the aircraft to stall if flying too slow.
“We can say that the pitot is strongly suspected of causing the incoherent speed
readings. It is one of the factors but not the only one,” said Mr Bouillard. This was also the consensus in the flying world, where suspicion has fallen on the computerised systems of the Airbus. The long-range airliners have suffered at least three dozen similar failures involving faulty speed readings, it has emerged over the past month.
Lawyers for families of victims have said that there could be a flaw that would require all A330 Airbuses to be grounded. The bureau rejected this.
This week it also emerged that Airbus first reported problems with the pitot tubes in 1994, including 36 reported incidents similar to the one that brought down Flight 447.
James Healy-Pratt of Stewarts Law in London, which is representing 20 of the families of the victim, told The Times: “EASA has a legal and moral obligation to get to the bottom of this problem now. If there is a defective system and the aircraft is unsafe then it should be grounded.”
Air France and Airbus are likely to face claims totalling about £300 million over the disaster.
Submarines and other vessels will continue until July 10 to search for the airliner’s two flight recorders on the ocean floor, although it is likely they have already stopped emitting signals.