Air France jet 'not destroyed in flight'

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An intact Air France Flight 447 slammed belly first into the Atlantic Ocean at high speed, a top French investigator said yesterday, adding that problems with speed sensors were not the direct cause of the crash.

Alain Bouillard, who is leading the investigation into the crash on 1 June for the French accident agency BEA, said the plane "was not destroyed in flight" and appeared to have been gathering speed as it dropped thousands of feet through the air. And he added that the speed sensors, called Pitot tubes, were "a factor but not the only one".

"It is an element but not the cause," M. Bouillard told a news conference in Le Bourget outside Paris. "Today we are very far from establishing the causes of the accident."

The Airbus A330-200 plane was carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it went down just after midnight in a remote area of the Atlantic, 930 miles off Brazil's mainland and far from radar coverage.

The BEA released its preliminary findings yesterday, calling it one of history's most challenging plane crash investigations. Yet the inquiry, which has proceeded without access to the plane's flight data and voice recorders, appears to have unveiled little about what really caused the accident.

"Between the surface of the water and 35,000 feet, we don't know what happened," M. Bouillard admitted. "In the absence of the flight recorders, it is extremely difficult to draw conclusions."

Kieran Daly, editor of Air Transport Intelligence, said that it was significant that the plane landed the right way up.

"It suggests they were in some kind of flight attitude [flying the right way up]," he said. But he warned that "without finding the black boxes it's going to be phenomenally difficult, maybe impossible, to determine what happened."

M. Bouillard said life vests found among the wreckage were not inflated, suggesting that passengers were not prepared for a crash landing in the water. The pilots apparently also did not send any mayday calls.

*A battered young girl believed to be the only survivor of an Indian Ocean Airbus crash flew back to Paris yesterday to be embraced by her father. Bahia Bakari, 14, has now been informed that her mother is missing. When asked how she felt by reporters, the teenager, who could barely open one of her bruised eyes, replied faintly: "Well".