Airbus broke up in mid-air, autopsies suggest

The results of autopsies carried out on victims of the Air France disaster are consistent with the Airbus A330 passenger jet breaking up in mid air, forensic experts have said.

Broken legs, hips and arms were found by Brazilian authorities on an undisclosed number of the 50 bodies recovered so far from the crash site in the Atlantic after flight 447 went down in a storm en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on 31 May killing all 228 people on board.

The findings, confirmed to the Associated Press on Wednesday, suggest the plane disintegrated at altitude and the force of the windstream may have killed the passengers. Forensic examiners also told Brazilian media that some of the bodies had no clothing and no signs of burns, evidence which is also consistent with a mid-air break up.

The autopsy findings are an important development for French air accident investigators who are struggling to piece together the reasons for a disaster so far from land and in such deep water. Paul-Louis Arslanian, who runs the French air accident investigation agency BEA, said investigators are beginning to form ”an image that is progressively less fuzzy”, but they faced ”one of the worst situations ever known in an accident investigation.” The black box recorders remain lost on the ocean floor and sonic detectors are being dragged on 6,4km long cables beneath the sea to try to pick up their whereabouts.

Jack Casey, an aviation safety consultant in Washington DC, who is a former accident investigator said multiple fractures are consistent with a midair breakup of the plane, which was cruising at about 34 500 feet when it went down.

”Getting ejected into that kind of windstream is like hitting a brick wall even if they stay in their seats, it is a crushing effect,” he said. ”Most of them were long dead before they hit the water would be my guess.” He added that their clothes would have been torn away by the wind.

”When a jet crashes into water largely intact such as the Egypt Air plane that hit the Atlantic Ocean after taking off from New York in 1999, debris and bodies are generally broken into small pieces,” said Frank Ciacco, a former forensic expert at the US National Transportation Safety Board. ”When you’ve had impact in the water, there is a lot more fragmentation of the bodies. They hit the water with a higher force.”

But a lack of burns would not necessarily rule out an explosion, said John Goglia, a former member of the US NTSB.

If something caused the lower fuselage to burn or explode, passengers would not be exposed to any blast damage and the plane would still disintegrate in flight.

”These are scenarios that cannot be ruled out,” he said. –

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