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Did Air France Flight 447 break up midair?

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"There is a very compelling need to find the wreckage," says Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation safety consultant. "We need to know, if some of the composite parts failed [on Flight 447, whether they failed at a point that any other material would have failed."

Determining what happened

The Associated Press reported Friday that three more bodies have been found, bringing the total to 44 of the 228 people aboard.

Investigators say determining their cause of death, as well as where each passenger was sitting on the plane, could help determine whether Flight 447 broke up in the air, or whether strong ocean currents are responsible for the widespread recovery zone.

A French nuclear submarine is scouring the Atlantic where debris has been found, listening for "pinger signals" from the black boxes. Special probes called "pinger locators" from the US Navy are expected to be part of the search in several days.

Some of the biggest pieces of debris found so far appear to be the plane's tail fin and vertical stabilizer. These parts are made partially of composite materials, and their failure has contributed to several crashes in the past. In the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus 300 with a similar design to the A330, the vertical stabilizer snapped off in severe turbulence. One of the first questions investigators addressed was whether the composite materials used in the component contributed to the crash, according to Mr. Healing.

β€œThe tail that broke off was a composite structure and was attached to the aircraft in six places. The lugs [some made of composite materials] holding it into place failed,” he says.

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