Brazil finds debris from Air France jet in Atlantic

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian military planes have found the wreckage of an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean with 228 people on board earlier this week, the defense minister said on Tuesday.

Nelson Jobim said there was “no doubt” that the 5-km (3-mile) strip of wreckage was from the Airbus A330 that went missing early on Monday after flying into stormy weather.

“It confirms that the plane fell in this area,” Jobim said at a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, from where the plane took off on Sunday night for its planned route to Paris.

The debris spotted by Brazilian air force pilots earlier on Tuesday included plane seats, an orange buoy, metallic objects and fuel stains in the water about 1,200 km (745 miles) northeast of the Brazilian coastal city of Recife.

Jobim said no bodies had yet been sighted by military pilots who scoured the area and that finding the “black box” flight data and voice recorders that hold clues to why the plane crashed would be a “extremely difficult.”

The chances of finding survivors among the 12 crew and 216 passengers of 32 different nationalities appeared close to zero, meaning it would be the worst disaster in Air France’s 75-year history.

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Authorities remained baffled by how a storm could have caused the modern plane built to withstand severe weather and operated by three experienced pilots to crash without even sending a distress signal.

Brazil’s air force last had contact with Flight AF 447 at 0133 GMT on Monday (9.33 p.m. EDT on Sunday) when it was 565 km (350 miles) from Brazil’s coast. The last automated signals, which reported an electrical failure, were received about 40 minutes later.

One theory is that a lightning strike or brutal turbulence set off further failures, but families were facing a long wait for answers as the search for the plane’s flight recorders is likely to be one of the most difficult ever.

Jobim said the flight recorders could be on the ocean floor at a depth of 2,000 to 3,000 meters (6,600-9,800 feet).

The “black box” recorders are the best hope of finding out why the jet crashed and are designed to send homing signals when they hit water. It could be among the hardest recovery tasks since the exploration of the Titanic, one expert said.

“If you think how long it took to find the Titanic and that the debris would be smaller, you are looking for a needle in haystack,” said Derek Clarke, joint managing director of Aberdeen-based Divex, which designs and builds military and commercial diving equipment.

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Senior French minister Jean-Louis Borloo said it was “a race against the clock” to find the black boxes because they only emit signals for up to 30 days.

Five air force planes continued the search from the islands of Fernando de Noronha, which sit about 370 km (230 miles) off the coast of South America. A U.S. Navy plane and 21 crew based in El Salvador landed in Brazil on Tuesday to join the search.

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Distraught relatives of the flight’s passengers, more than half of whom were French or Brazilian, were being assisted by teams of psychologists in Paris and Rio.

“My son died on his birthday,” said a tearful Diana Raquel, mother of British-based Brazilian dentist Jose Rommel Amorim, who turned 35 on Sunday and had been visiting his family.

Among the 216 passengers were executives from major companies that have ramped up investments in Brazil in recent years and European tourists returning from its famous beaches as well as seven children and one baby.

French electrical equipment firm CGED said 10 of its staff were on the missing plane with their partners after winning a trip to Brazil in the company’s annual sales contest.

Aviation experts were at a loss to explain how the plane, which had an excellent safety record, could have crashed.

Lightning strikes on planes are common and could not alone explain the downing of a modern aircraft, they said.

There were no distress messages, human or automatic. No mayday message was picked up, nor were any signals received from emergency beacons that should have transmitted automatically.

“It would be very unusual to have all the communications systems fail at once,” said David Gleave of Aviation Safety Investigations, an airport and air traffic control risk management consultancy based in Britain. “That would tend to indicate that something catastrophic happened.”

Two Lufthansa jets believed to have been in the same area half an hour before the missing Air France flight are expected to provide clues for the investigation, the World Meteorological Organization said.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin said the government could not rule out a terrorist attack but had no evidence to suggest that foul play had caused the crash.

Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Rodrigo Viga Gaier in Rio; Fernando Exman in Brasilia; William Maclean and Jason Neely in London; Tim Hepher and Estelle Shirbon in Paris; Michael Connor in Miami; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray