Pilots searching for Air France jet spot debris

Brazilian military pilots hunting Tuesday for a missing Air France jet spotted an airplane seat, an orange buoy and signs of fuel in a part of the Atlantic Ocean with depths of up to three miles. Brazil's Navy said three commercial ships in the area were joining the search and France said it would send a ship capable of deep-water exploration. A U.S. spy plane was also diverted from drug interdiction efforts to help with the effort, AP reported.
The pilots spotted two areas of floating debris - but no signs of life - about 35 miles (60 kilometers) apart, about 410 miles (650 kilometers) beyond the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, near Flight 447's path from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, said Air Force spokesman Jorge Amaral.
The discovery came about 36 hours after the jet went missing, with all 228 on board feared dead.
"The locations where the objects were found are toward the right of the point where the last signal of the plane was emitted," Amaral said. "That suggests that it might have tried to make a turn, maybe to return to Fernando de Noronha, but that is just a hypothesis."
Amaral said some of the debris was white and small, but did not describe it in more detail.
Sea depths vary dramatically in the areas where the rubble was spotted, ranging from slightly less than a mile to three miles deep, experts said. Brazilian military officials declined to release the precise coordinates.
Two of the commercial ships that joined the search late Tuesday morning reached sites where the debris was found, a Navy spokeswoman said.
"Once they come across the objects, they will be analyzed to determine if they are parts of the plane or just junk," she said.
A U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance plane and 21 crew members arrived in Brazil Tuesday morning from El Salvador and was to begin overflying the zone in the afternoon, U.S. officials said in a statement. The plane can fly low over the ocean for about 12 hours at a time and has radar and sonar designed to track submarines underwater.
The French dispatched a research ship equipped with unmanned submarines to the debris site. The subs can explore depths of up to 19,600 feet (6,000 meters). The U.S. was considering contributing unmanned underwater vehicles in the search as well, according to a defense source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Rescuers were still scanning a vast sweep of ocean extending from far off northeastern Brazil to waters off West Africa. The 4-year-old plane was last heard from at 0214 GMT Monday (10:14 p.m. EDT Sunday) about four hours after it left Rio.
If no survivors are found, it would be the world's worst civil aviation disaster since the November 2001 crash of an American Airlines jetliner in the New York City borough of Queens that killed 265 people.
Investigators on both sides of the ocean are trying to determine what brought the Airbus A330 down, with few clues to go on. Potential causes include violently shifting winds and hail from towering thunderheads, lightning or some combination of other factors.
The crew made no distress call before the crash, but the plane's system sent an automatic message just before it disappeared, reporting lost cabin pressure and electrical failure. The plane's cockpit and "black box" recorders could be thousands of feet (meters) below the surface.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that if the debris is confirmed to be part of Flight 447, "This will allow us to better determine the search zone."
"We are in a race against the clock in extremely difficult weather conditions and in a zone where depths reach up to 7,000 meters (22,966 feet)," he told lawmakers in the lower house of French parliament Tuesday. Black box recorders can emit signals for up to 30 days.
The chance of finding survivors now "is very, very small, even nonexistent," said Jean-Louis Borloo, the French minister overseeing transportation.
The Airbus A330-200 was cruising normally at 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) and 522 mph (840 kph) just before it disappeared. No trouble was reported as the plane left radar contact, beyond Brazil's Fernando de Noronha archipelago.
But just north of the equator, a line of towering thunderstorms loomed. Bands of extremely turbulent weather stretched across the Atlantic toward Africa.
Borloo called the A330 "one of the most reliable planes in the world" and said lightning alone, even from a fierce tropical storm, probably couldn't have brought down the plane.
"There really had to be a succession of extraordinary events to be able to explain this situation," Borloo said on RTL radio Tuesday.
France's junior minister for transport, Dominique Bussereau, said the plane sent "a kind of outburst" of automated messages just before it disappeared, "which means something serious happened, as eventually the circuits switched off."
French military spokesman Christophe Prazuck said France has three military patrol aircraft flying over the central Atlantic, but could shift its search operations closer to the site of the Brazilian discovery. He said an AWACS radar plane also had been dispatched and should join the operation on Wednesday.
French police were studying passenger lists and maintenance records, and preparing to take DNA from passengers' relatives to help identify any bodies.
France's Defense Minister Herve Morin said "we have no signs so far" of terrorism, but all hypotheses must be studied.
Alain Bouillard, who led the probe into the crash of the Concorde in July 2000, was put in charge of France's accident investigation team.
President Barack Obama told French television stations the United States is ready to do everything necessary to find out what happened.
On board the flight were 61 French citizens, 58 Brazilians, 26 Germans, nine Chinese and nine Italians. A lesser number of citizens from 27 other countries also were on the passenger list.
Two Americans living in Rio de Janeiro were on board. Michael Harris, 60, a geologist, and his wife Anne, 54, were headed to Europe for work and vacation. They lived previously in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Among the passengers were three young Irish doctors, returning from two-week vacation in Brazil. Aisling Butler's father John paid tribute to his 26-year-old daughter, from Roscrea, County Tipperary.
"She was a truly wonderful, exciting girl. She never flunked an exam in her life - nailed every one of them - and took it all in her stride," he said.

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