Air France's CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon told the families in a private meeting that the plane broke apart either in the air or when it slammed into the ocean, according to Guillaume Denoix de Saint-Marc, who was asked by Paris prosecutors to help counsel family members and was at the Wednesday meeting with Air France. The plane, carrying 228 people, disappeared after leaving Rio de Janeiro for Paris on Sunday night.
Investigators were relying heavily on the plane's automated messages to help reconstruct what happened to the jet as it flew through towering thunderstorms. They detail a series of failures that end with its systems shutting down, suggesting the plane broke apart in the sky, according to an aviation industry official with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Wednesday because he was not authorized to discuss the crash.
What is clear is that there was no landing. There's no chance the escape slides came out," said Denoix de Saint-Marc, who heads an association founded for victims of UTA flight 772, shot down in 1989 by Libyan terrorists.
Gourgeon told families there were no survivors, according to Denoix de Saint-Marc. That would make this Air France's deadliest plane crash, and the world's worst commercial air accident since 2001.
Effort to narrow search zone
Military rescue planes were trying to narrow the search zone Thursday as ships headed to the site to recover wreckage.
Brazilian military planes located new debris from Air France Flight 447 Wednesday, after spotting an airline seat and oil slick on Tuesday.
But French military spokesman Christophe Prazuck said Thursday that French planes had made six missions over the area and have yet to spot any wreckage.
"As of today French planes have not found any debris that could have come from the Air France Airbus that disappeared. There have been radar detections made by the AWACS (radar plane) ... and each time these signals have not corresponded to debris," Prazuck said.
He said French teams have been searching in different places and at different times from the Brazilian search teams, which may be why they have not been able to identify the seats and other debris that the Brazilians picked up.
Three more French overflights were planned for Thursday, Prazuck said. A U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance plane has also joined Brazil's Air Force in trying to spot debris.
Brazil's Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said debris discovered so far was spread over a wide area, with some 140 miles separating pieces of wreckage they have spotted. The overall zone is roughly 400 miles northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northern coast, where the ocean floor drops as low as 22,950 feet below sea level.
The floating debris includes a 23-foot chunk of plane, but pilots have spotted no signs of survivors, Brazilian Air Force spokesman Col. Jorge Amaral said.
Search for black box delayed
Heavy weather delayed until next week the arrival of deep-water submersibles considered key to finding the black box voice and data recorders that will help answer the question of what happened to the airliner.
But even with the equipment, the lead French investigator questioned whether the recorders would ever be found in such a deep and rugged part of the ocean.
The plane's last automated messages detail a series of failures that end with its systems shutting down, suggesting the plane broke apart in the sky, according to an aviation industry official with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the crash.
The pilot sent a manual signal at 11 p.m. local time Sunday saying he was flying through an area of black, electrically charged cumulonimbus clouds that come with violent winds and lightning.
Ten minutes later, a cascade of problems began: Automatic messages indicate the autopilot had disengaged, a key computer system switched to alternative power, and controls needed to keep the plane stable had been damaged. An alarm sounded indicating the deterioration of flight systems.
Three minutes after that, more automatic messages reported the failure of systems to monitor air speed, altitude and direction. Control of the main flight computer and wing spoilers failed as well.
The last automatic message, at 11:14 p.m., signaled loss of cabin pressure and complete electrical failure — catastrophic events in a plane that was likely already plunging toward the ocean.
Air France spokesman Nicolas Petteau referred questions about the messages to the French accident investigation agency, BEA, whose spokesman Martine Del Bono said the agency declined to comment. Brazil's defense minister Nelson Jobim also declined to comment, saying that the accident investigation is being done by France. Brazil is leading the recovery effort.
Other experts agreed that the automatic reports of system failures on the plane strongly suggest it broke up in the air, perhaps due to fierce thunderstorms, turbulence, lightning or a catastrophic combination of events.
"These are telling us the story of the crash. They are not explaining what happened to cause the crash," said Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.