, LE BOURGET, Jun 17 – Investigators said on Wednesday they were inching closer to understanding what caused the crash of Air France flight 447 as the deep-sea search for bodies and evidence continued in the Atlantic.
"The goal is to understand what happened," Paul-Louis Arslanian, director of the Investigation and Analysis Bureau (BEA), the French body in charge of the technical side of the inquiry, told a press briefing during the Paris Air Show.
"Considering all the work that has been done and all we have at our disposal, I think we may be getting a bit closer to our goal," he said.
But Arslanian refused to give details on leads being followed up by his 60-member team of investigators, lashing out at press "speculation" including suggestions that defective speed probes could have played a role in the disaster.
"For now, we cannot say, and no one can say what happened. It is much too soon to go imagining scenarios in one direction or another," he insisted.
Air France Flight 447 plunged into the ocean on June 1 as it was flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris with 228 people on board, the worst crash in Air France’s 75-year history which has puzzled aviation experts worldwide.
The Airbus A330 went down as it was flying through turbulence caused by a storm and the jet sent out 24 automated messages about abnormalities in the final minutes of the flight.
Five days after the crash, the BEA said the plane’s airspeed sensors, or pitot probes, had been feeding inconsistent readings to the cockpit.
Aviation experts say conflicting airspeed data can cause the autopilot to shut down and in extreme cases the plane to stall or fly dangerously fast, possibly causing a high-altitude breakup.
But the BEA, along with Airbus and Air France, has since insisted no link has been proven between the speed monitors and the crash — although Air France upgraded all sensors on its long-haul fleet after protests from pilots.
Asked whether it was an overreaction for airlines to change their speed probes, Arslanian said it was "a legitimate approach for companies who do not want to take any risks."
An international search team is scouring an area of 19,000 square kilometres (7,720 square miles), with the focus on locating the "black box" flight recorders that could hold the key to its plunge into the Atlantic.
But a nuclear submarine and two other vessels equipped with listening devices have yet to detect the ping of the black boxes, which are programmed to emit a signal for one month.
The Brazilian and French navies have so far recovered 50 bodies as well as pieces of the aircraft, including a large fragment of its tail, from the ocean off the coast of Brazil.
Arslanian said investigators had so far recovered around 400 pieces of debris from the search area — many of them small fragments of foam rubber or aircraft cabin furnishings.
But he warned it was now "virtually certain that we will not recover the entire aircraft."
"We are doing all we can to recover the flight recorders and bodies, and we cannot say today what we will succeed in doing," he said.
Arslanian said he had yet to see the results of autopsies carried out by the Brazilian authorities, adding that a French medical expert sent by the BEA had not been allowed to take part in the post-mortems.
He denied during the briefing there were tensions with the Brazilian team over access to the autopsy results, but admitted to reporters afterwards that he was "not happy."
From Wednesday, authorities are to evaluate every two days whether to continue the operation.