FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazilian search crews fished the first debris from a crashed Air France flight out of choppy Atlantic waters on Thursday amid concern the plane may have flown through a storm at the wrong speed.
Citing sources close to the inquiry, French newspaper Le Monde said the plane’s maker, Airbus, was preparing to issue a recommendation advising airlines that fly the A330 of optimal speeds during poor weather conditions.
Airbus declined to comment but France’s BEA air accident investigation agency warned against speculating over the cause of the accident given that only two facts had been established.
They included the presence of stormy weather conditions close to the plane’s expected route and the fact various speeds measured on the basis of automatic messages sent by the plane showed “incoherence,” suggesting they did not tally.
While Le Monde said the airliner was flying “at the wrong speed” in the early hours of Monday just before the disaster, it drew no link with the final sequences of automated messages sent by the jet.
Pilots often slow down when entering stormy zones to avoid damaging the aircraft, but reducing speed too much can cause an aircraft to stall.
A Brazilian Lynx helicopter picked up a luggage pallet and two buoys before returning to a navy frigate sent to the area to help with the rescue, Brazil’s air force said.
The crews also found yellow, brown and white items that appeared to come from the inside of the aircraft.
Searchers have found several debris sites spread out over 90 km (56 miles), a sign the plane may have broken up in the air.
The Air France A330-200 was en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it plunged into the Atlantic four hours into its flight. Air France has told relatives of the 228 people on board there is no hope of survivors.
Experts have been mystified by the sudden crash of a modern airliner operated by three experienced pilots, with theories on the cause ranging from extreme turbulence to a loss of cabin pressure to possible computer system faults.
Three Brazilian navy ships are searching the area about 1,100 km (680 miles) northeast of Brazil’s coast, but have yet to reach the debris. Searchers have seen no traces of bodies.
“We were giving priority to finding bodies, but as we haven’t found any we have time to collect the debris,” Air Force Brigadier Ramon Borges Cardoso told reporters in the northern coastal city of Recife. “If we find bodies, we will stop everything and bring them here.”
From a base on the islands of Fernando de Noronha, a sparsely populated volcanic archipelago 370 km (230 miles) from Brazil’s coast, 11 air force planes have been carrying out search operations over a 6,000 sq km (2,300 sq mile) area.
Several hundred relatives and friends of the passengers crammed into the Candelaria church in Rio on Thursday morning, crying and hugging each other.
“Those who are missing are here in our hearts and in our memories,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told them.
Brazil’s defense minister Nelson Jobim said on Wednesday the presence of long fuel slicks in the water could mean the crash was not caused by an explosion, which would have burned the fuel.
Jobim’s remarks undercut speculation that a bomb may have blown up the plane in mid-air, a possibility intelligence services and security analysts say seems unlikely.
French authorities have not excluded the possibility of foul play. With the flight data and voice recorders probably at the bottom of the ocean, officials are worried they may never discover what caused AF Flight 447 to drop out of the sky.
The crash appears to have been sudden and brutal.
Spanish newspaper El Mundo said a transatlantic airline pilot reported seeing a flash of white light at the same time the Air France flight disappeared.
“Suddenly we saw in the distance a strong, intense flash of white light that took a downward, vertical trajectory and disappeared in six seconds,” the pilot of an Air Comet flight from Lima to Madrid told his company, the newspaper reported.
The plane sent a series of automatic messages in the space of four minutes indicating system failures and a sharp dive, specialist magazine Aviation Herald said on its Web site, citing Air France sources.
The messages started arriving at 0210 GMT on Monday (10:10 p.m. EDT on Sunday), indicating the automatic pilot had been disengaged, and ended at 0214 with an advisory that the cabin was at “vertical speed.”
A problem with the aircraft’s speed could be part of the puzzle, but one expert said it was doubtful whether any of the plane’s flight readings were accurate in its final moments.
“Was the airplane going slowly or was it indicating that it was going slowly? There’s a big difference.” said John Cox, President of Washington aviation consulting firm Safety Operating Systems.
Additional reporting by Alonso Soto, Brian Ellsworth and Pedro Fonseca in Rio; Christian Balmer and Estelle Shirborn in Paris; Andrew Hay in Madrid; William Maclean in London; Writing Brian Ellsworth, editing by Todd Benson and Alan Elsner