An inquiry has begun into the cause of Monday’s disaster, but the scattered and sunken remains of the jet will have to be recovered before hundreds of grieving relatives across the world can expect any answers.
In particular, investigators will want to get a hold of the Airbus A330’s black box flight data recorders, which may be lying in Atlantic Ocean waters as deep as 6,000 metres and 500 kilometres from land.
The crash, with 228 people on board, including three Irish victims, is the worst in the airline’s history.
The director of the French air investigation agency, Paul Louis Arslanian, said he was “not totally optimistic” the boxes would be recovered from the “deep and mountainous” place into which they are thought to have sunk.
“We can’t rule out not finding the recorders,” he told a news conference in Paris, adding that even if they are found there is no guarantee the speed and altitude data and cockpit recordings would be enough to solve the mystery.
A naval mission was launched after the debris was spotted off Brazil’s coast, and ships heading to the zone are carrying two mini-submarines, the best hope of tracking down the boxes, which are meant to emit a location signal.
The first Brazilian vessel arrived yesterday, joining three cargo ships from France and the Netherlands that were rerouted to the area.
A Brazilian air force plane with night-vision sensors scoured a zone 500 kilometres northeast of Brazil’s Fernando do Noronha archipelago, itself 400 kilometres from the mainland, officials said.
At first light spotter aircraft from the United States and France joined Brazilian air force planes to make visual sweeps for the wreckage, a Brazilian air force spokesman said.
Three Brazilian Air Force Hercules, a Falcon 50 from France and a P-3 Orion aircraft from the United States took off from a base in Natal in northeastern Brazil to take up the search for debris and for bodies, he said.
But since the initial discovery on Tuesday of an airplane seat, fuel slicks and other bits of debris, no further signs of the wreckage have been spotted.
Defence Minister Nelson Jobim said that the spot in Brazilian waters was the crash site of the Air France Airbus A330, and a spokesman for the French general staff confirmed this.
“The operation is now changing from being an aerial mission covering a vast expanse of the ocean to a naval operation focusing on a much more limited area,” said Captain Christophe Prazuck.
The wreckage extinguished any lingering hopes of finding survivors and confirmed the worst civil aviation accident since 2001, when an American Airlines jet crashed in New York killing all 260 people on board.
Brazil on Tuesday announced three days of national mourning.
The flight was four hours into its 11-hour voyage from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it broadcast automatic warnings indicating multiple electrical and pressurisation failures and ceased contact with controllers.
The pilots did not issue a distress call.
A team of investigators from France’s BEA air safety agency is already in Brazil, the Brazilian air force said. In Paris, prosecutors launched a formal judicial inquiry.
Any human remains located would be taken by ship to Fernando de Noronha, where they would be flown out on air force aircraft.
More than half of those travelling on the Air France jet were either French or Brazilian. The others came from 30 countries, mostly in Europe.
The 216 passengers included 126 men, 82 women, seven children and a baby. The crew comprised 11 French nationals and one Brazilian.
Air France has suggested the four-year-old jet was struck by lightning, a fairly common hazard that by itself should not knock out a modern airliner.
Other theories advanced by experts include pilot error, mechanical defects or even terrorism. French officials have refused to rule out any possibility, after initially suggesting the crash was accidental.