FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil — Military planes located new debris from Air France Flight 447 Wednesday, while investigators focused on a nightmarish ordeal in which the jetliner broke up over the Atlantic as it flew through a violent storm.
Heavy weather delayed until next week the arrival of deep-water submersibles considered key to finding the black box voice and data recorders that, if retrieved, would help answer the question of what happened to the airliner that disappeared Sunday with 228 people on board.
As the first Brazilian military ships neared the search area, investigators were relying heavily on the plane's automated messages to help reconstruct what happened to the jet as it flew through towering thunderstorms.
They detail a series of failures that end with its systems shutting down, suggesting the plane broke apart in the sky, according to an aviation industry official with knowledge of the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the crash.
The pilot sent a manual signal at 11 p.m. local time saying he was flying through an area of "CBs" — black, electrically charged cumulonimbus clouds that come with violent winds and lightning. Satellite data has shown that towering thunderheads were sending 100 mph updraft winds into the jet's flight path at the time.
Other experts agreed that the automatic reports of system failures on the plane strongly suggest it broke up in the air, perhaps due to fierce thunderstorms, turbulence, lightning or a catastrophic combination of events.
"These are telling us the story of the crash. They are not explaining what happened to cause the crash," said Bill Voss of the Flight Safety Foundation.