Air France Received Bomb Threat Days Before Crash


air-france1ABC News has confirmed that Air France received a bomb threat over the phone concerning a flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Paris just days before Air France flight 447 disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean Sunday night. Authorities at Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza Airport delayed the May 27 flight before take-off and conducted a 90-minute search of the threatened aircraft. Passengers were not evacuated during the search, which yielded no explosive material. After the inspection, authorities allowed the plane to take off for Paris.Just four days later, flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Paris disappeared with 228 people on board. On Tuesday searchers discovered debris from the plane floating in the Atlantic Ocean 700 miles off the coast of Brazil.

Brazilian Air Force spokesman, Jorge Amaral, told reporters today that the debris is spread out in two main areas, about 35 miles apart, located some 400 miles from the Brazilian islands of Fernando de Noronha.

But bad weather is hampering recovery efforts. Searchers have seen scattered pieces of debris, including what appears to be a seat, on the ocean. And weather aside, recovering debris in this part of the ocean may not be easy. The area underwater where the search is focused is extremely mountainous terrain.

“That’s like searching for an airplane in the surface of the mountains, you could be very close and not be able to see the wreckage,” said John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Still, Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expressed his determination in finding the plane.

“A country that could find oil in 3,700 miles deep in the ocean is going to be able to find a plane in 1,200 miles deep,” he said in a statement.

Meantime, passenger Arthur Coakley’s wife keeps trying his cell phone — also determined to get an answer.

“I haven’t tried it today, but yesterday it was ringing,” said Patricia Coakley. “So maybe they’re not at the bottom of the sea.”

In a press conference today, the head of France’s accident investigation agency, Paul-Louis Arslanian, described the case of the missing flight 447 as the “worst French aviation disaster in history.” He added that it was unclear whether the chief pilot was in the cockpit when the plane went down, since pilots usually take turns at the controls during long-haul flights.

Arslanian added that there are four groups of investigators working on the case. The first group will search for debris, and the other three groups will study the plane’s equipment and maintenance records. He stressed that there were no suggestions of any problems with the plane before takeoff.

He also said he was “not optimistic” of recovering the aircraft’s black boxes (cockpit voice and data recorders), which are believed to be buried under the sea. The terrain “is not only deep, but it’s also very mountainous,” he said.

If found, the plane’s black boxes would also provide many more clues about what happened. Experts said the black boxes emit signals, although only for a finite period of time, in the water. With tracking beacons that activate when the boxes get wet, the black box radio signal can work for about 30 days. Search teams will have to be within 4,000 to 5,000 feet of the black box location to pick up the signals.
No Distress Calls From Crew
Lt. Col. Jed Hudson, a commander at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, said that all planes also have emergency transmitters in their tails that are designed to send out a distress signal in case of emergency.

It’s possible that this one either malfunctioned or there wasn’t a satellite passing overhead to detect the signal at the time the plane was in trouble, he said. The information can be stored and detected once satellites pass overhead — unless it is too far underwater.

No distress calls were made by the crew, but a series of automatic messages was sent by the plane’s system just before it vanished, reporting lost cabin pressure and electrical failure. Arslanian said the messages were received in a time frame of three minutes. Investigators were working to interpret these messages, he added, saying that he did not want to go into details at such an early stage of the probe.

The reasons behind the crash remain unclear, with many speculating that it could have been a result of thunderstorms and lightning or a combination of both. But ABC News has confirmed that two commercial planes flew virtually the same route as that taken by the Air France jet just before and after the missing flight.

Arslanian said that to the best of his knowledge, the pilot at the controls told Brazilian air control that he was experiencing turbulence about 30 minutes before the plane’s disappearance.

He stressed that the investigation was only in its early stages, and he could not confirm how the plane went down. “We don’t even know the exact time of the accident,” he said, adding that “our objective today is to publish the first report by the end of June.”

Today, 12 military planes, including one American plane and one French aircraft, and ships are engaged in an operation to recover the debris. Sea currents are said to be impeding the process. A forensic scientist is also believed to be onboard one of the planes to help with the recovery operation.

“Because of the way this airplane disappeared, we have very little evidence to start to put together what happened,” said John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So anything they can get from the debris field in the ocean is going to be important in terms of clues.”

The missing Airbus A330 had 216 passengers and 12 crew onboard when it departed Sunday night. According to the Brazilian air force, there are no indications of survivors.

A U.S. maritime surveillance aircraft has been dispatched to Brazil from El Salvador to assist in the search, ABC News has been told. Last night in France, French Transport Minister Jean-Louis Borloo also gave instructions for a search and exploration ship to be sent to the crash site.

The French ship is equipped with tools to help recover debris, including an underwater robots that can plunge about 20,000 feet underwater. It could be a few days before the ship arrives where the debris has been spotted.


Weather Worries
What made the plane disappear is not clear, although it did enter an area with severe thunderstorm activity around the time it vanished.

A Lufthansa spokesman told ABC News he knew of one flight in the area at the time, but it is not clear if that plane encountered any poor weather.

“This flight operated normally without any irregularities reported by the crew,” Lufthansa said in a Tuesday statement.

Word also came Monday night that a crew from TAM, Brazil’s largest air carrier, saw orange spots on the ocean while flying over the same general area as the Air France Flight 447.

“If that was, in fact, debris burning from this aircraft, then that tells us that it broke up in flight,” ABC News aviation consultant John Nance said Tuesday.

Borloo said he did not think bad weather alone could have brought the plane down. Officials “do not believe a simple bolt of lightning, something relatively classic in aviation, could have caused the loss of the craft,” Borloo said, according to The Associated Press. He also brushed off the idea that terrorism or a hijacking could be involved.

He also told France’s RTV radio, “There really had to be a succession of extraordinary events to be able to explain this situation.”

Nance agreed.

“You never say never,” he told ABC News’ “Good Morning America,” about the chance of lightning triggering a crash, but added that it would be almost unheard of for a plane to be downed by lightning alone.

Nance also said it’s unlikely that turbulence could break up a plane: “In most circumstances, absolutely not,” he said. “The aircraft can take anything the atmosphere can throw at it, except for tornadoes.”

In very rare cases, Nance said, a plane could be trying to recover from severe turbulence and then hit more, causing too much stress for the plane.

Accu Weather’s Ken Reeves says towering thunderstorms are common over that area of the Atlantic. He said planes typically fly at about 35,000 to 37,000 feet, and storms in the tropics can be as high as 50,000 feet.

“In that part of the tropics, with as high as the thunderstorms are, it can be difficult having to go hundreds and hundreds of miles out of your way in order to just get to the point you’re trying to get to,” Reeves said.

“We are really talking about extreme circumstances here,” said William Voss, president and CEO of Flight Safety Foundation. “And so a rainy night out of LaGuardia isn’t what we are talking about. We are talking about situations that are very extreme, very severe turbulence is assumed to have occurred here. And there’s not many of us — not even many pilots that have really experienced severe turbulence. You would know it if you had.”

The Airbus jet, only four years old, did have sophisticated radar that should have helped the pilots try to skirt any violent weather.


Mystery Over the Atlantic: The Passengers Onboard
Meanwhile, the list of the missing indicates a virtual United Nations of passengers: Those onboard the plane came from more than 30 countries, including Americans Michael and Ann Harris, who had been living in Rio for more than a year. Tuesday afternoon, U.S. State department officials said a third American, a dual citizen traveling under a foreign passport, was also onboard.

In addition to the three U.S. citizens, the passengers include 61 French citizens, 58 Brazilians, 26 Germans, nine Chinese and nine Italians. Hope is now almost gone for the passengers and crew, which include seven children, a baby, 126 men and 82 women.

Michael Harris is a geologist working in Brazil for Devon Energy, a natural gas and oil producer. He’d been transferred from Houston to Brazil in 2008.

“We are extremely saddened by this development and trying to monitor the situation as it unfolds,” said Devon Energy spokesman Tony Thornton in a statement. “We’re doing what we can to help the family at this time.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood has said the U.S. government is also in touch with the families of the Americans onboard.

All 12 members of the crew on the plane were French, according to the airline.

Finding bodies, survivors or significant pieces of the debris such as flight data recorders, in water Google Earth estimates to be 13,000 feet deep, could be daunting.

“The mid-oceans are one of the remotest parts of the world,” Hansman said. “It’s like going to the North Pole. It’s in an area where there is very limited ability to communicate.”

The flight had been expected to land in Paris at 5:15 a.m. ET. after leaving Rio around 6 p.m. Sunday night.

The Brazilian air force said in a statement that it had been anticipating radio contact with the plane when it was still over northeast Brazil, but when it received no radio communication, Brazilian air traffic control contacted air traffic control in Dakar, Senegal. There was no Mayday call and no nearby planes received a call for help on the international emergency frequency.

Air France said the captain of the flight had more than 11,000 hours of flight time, including 1,700 hours on the Airbus A330/A340.

There are 341 A330 planes of this type operating worldwide. Airbus released a statement saying it would be “inappropriate for Airbus to enter into any form of speculation into the causes of the accident.

“The concerns and sympathy of the Airbus employees go to the families, friends and loved ones affected by the accident,” the statement read.

{ABC News Ventures/ Newscenter}