(UPDATE 3) Brazil finds plane debris in hunt for Air France jet

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jun 02 2009 08:42 PM | Updated as of Jun 03 2009 06:40 AM

RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazilian air force planes scouring the Atlantic for a missing Air France jet that went down in a fierce storm with 228 people on board found floating aircraft debris Tuesday, a spokesman said.

"The search is continuing because it's very little material in relation to the size" of the Airbus A330 that disappeared Monday while en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, Group Captain Jorge Amaral said.

The sparse remains -- which included an aircraft seat -- were located 650 kilometers (400 miles) northeast of Brazil's Fernando do Noronha island.

Amaral said officials needed "a piece that might have a serial number, some sort of identification" to be sure that it came from the missing airliner.

The Fernando do Noronha archipelago lies 370 kilometers (230 miles) off Brazil's northeast coast, under the missing plane's scheduled flight path.

Brazilian and French spotter planes meanwhile continued their hunt in seas halfway between South America and Africa, as investigators puzzled over a series of error messages sent by the flight after it hit a fierce storm.

Officials had identified a search zone about off northeastern Brazil, based on the last signal from the doomed plane -- an automatic warning of multiple electric and pressurisation failures.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy and others held out very little hope of survivors from what appears to be the worst loss of life in Air France's history and the worst civilian air accident since 2001.

"The search will continue as long as necessary. All means are deployed in the area and we'll put as many assets at their disposal as necessary," French Defence Minister Herve Morin told Europe 1 radio.

A Brazilian pilot for TAM airlines had earlier reported seeing orange glimmers on the surface of the ocean under Senegalese airspace on the route the vanished plane would have taken.

French Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, whose brief includes the transport portfolio, said that, if they so wished, relatives of the missing could be flown to the search zone to watch.

The Airbus A330 disappeared early Monday four hours into its 11-hour flight after flying into a storm.

While the cause of the disaster remains a mystery, Air France chief executive Pierre-Henry Gourgeon said the aircraft had sent a series of error messages before it vanished.

"A succession of a dozen technical messages" sent by the aircraft around 0215 GMT showed that "several electrical systems had broken down" which caused a "totally unprecedented situation in the plane," he said.

"It is probable that it was shortly after these messages that the impact in the Atlantic came," he told reporters at Charles de Gaulle airport, where the flight was to have landed on Monday morning.

Air France officials had earlier said the twin-engine airliner was probably hit by lightning, but Gourgeon declined to make a direct link between the horrendous weather conditions and the error messages.

"All possibilities must be examined. We cannot, by definition, exclude a terrorist attack, because terrorism is the main threat for all Western democracies," defence minister Morin said.

"But today we have no evidence whatsoever of the cause of the accident."

The 216 passengers included 126 men, 82 women, seven children and a baby. There were 11 French and one Brazilian crew while the passengers came from 32 countries, including 61 from France, 58 from Brazil and 26 from Germany.

Nineteen passengers were employees and relatives of a French electrical firm who had won a holiday for hitting sales targets. Another three were Irishwomen in the 20s who qualified together as doctors.

The captain, whose name has yet to be released, was 58 and an Air France pilot since 1988, the airline said. He had 11,000 flying hours under his belt, including 1,700 on Airbus A330s or A340s.