This photo by Mike Purcell of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution shows a REMUS 6000, one of the autonomous underwater vehicles searching for the wreckage of Air France Flight 447.

Flight 447's Wreckage Found

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's team has discovered pieces of the Airbus A330 that crashed in June 2009, killing all 228 people aboard, raising hopes that its flight recorders might be recovered.

The fourth attempt to recover flight data recorders from Air France Flight 447 in deep Atlantic Ocean waters may succeed, now that pieces of the wreckage have been found. France's aviation accident investigating agency, the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA), announced April 3 that the team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's ship Alucia had found pieces of the plane.

Alucia carried three autonomous underwater vehicles called REMUS 6000s to conduct the search of 3,900 square miles in waters off the northeastern coast of Brazil. The Airbus A330 jetliner crashed June 1, 2009, killing all 228 people aboard, and millions of dollars have been spent since then to find the wreckage.

Some parts of the plane were found floating in the area five days after the airplane disappeared, and engineers and safety experts who analyzed them concluded the ice that formed when the aircraft flew through a thunderstorm disabled pitot tubes in all three airspeed indicators, which caused the A330's safety and control systems to shut down, fatally stalling the plane. But BEA has been determined to find the wreckage so it can be certain why the plane crashed.

"Finding the wreckage and reading out the flight recorders remain the key to any possible understanding of the circumstances and causes of the accident and thus to any safety lessons that may be drawn to prevent any recurrence," BEA states on its website about the searches. "The BEA has, nevertheless, already been able to issue several safety recommendations concerning the certification of Pitot tubes, finding wreckage, as well as on recovering flight data. These recommendations have accelerated the work undertaken in these fields. The maintenance messages transmitted in the last few moments of the flight brought to light a loss of speed information, very likely linked to a phenomenon of blocking of the Pitot tubes by ice crystals. This blocking led to the loss of some automated systems. It appeared, however, that airplane certification standards did not cover all of the conditions that could be encountered in clouds at high altitude."

The ship has a crew of 34 and carried the three REMUS 6000s. WHOI says two of them are owned by the Waitt Institute for Discovery, and the third is owned and operated by Leibniz Institute for Marine Sciences IFM-GEOMAR of Germany. The REMUS 6000s are designed to operate in depths up to 6,000 meters (19,685 feet, or 3.7 miles) with side-scan sonar to survey up to 600 meters to the left and right. They can stay underwater for up to 20 hours at a time, then returns to the ship so the data can be downloaded.

"There is no better team or technology available to handle this mission," said David Gallo, director of special projects at WHOI. "The plane was lost over the Mid-Ocean Ridge, a feature that we have been exploring for more than 30 years. The terrain will be extremely rugged and the search will be difficult, but this is something that we have been doing as a part of our mission to explore and understand the global oceans."

This search had been scheduled to continue until July 2011.

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