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AirAsia Flight 8501 Was 'Probably Horizontal' When It Crashed: Expert

Doomed AirAsia Flight 8501 was likely horizontal when it crashed into the sea and its impact was probably “not very violent,” an expert told NBC News.
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PARIS — Doomed AirAsia Flight 8501 was likely horizontal when it crashed into the sea and its impact was probably “not very violent,” an expert told NBC News.

The size of debris and the state of the victims recovered suggests the jet may have glided into the water, according to Jean-Paul Troadec, who was in charge of the official French air accident investigation agency at the time of the Air France 447 crash.

“The pieces of the aircraft are not so fragmented, it’s quite large pieces,” he said. “The fact that the bodies seem intact means most probably that the impact was not very violent and that the airplane was probably horizontal when it crashed into the sea.”

His comments came as a U.S. Navy ship helping the international search effort spotted objects that could be pieces of debris from the Airbus A320, which crashed off the coast of Borneo on Dec. 28 with 162 people on board.

The U.S.S. Fort Worth found the objects on the sea floor and was attempting to identify them, Indonesia's search and rescue chief Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo told a news conference at 7 p.m. local time (7 a.m. ET) Tuesday.

Two more bodies were recovered from the sea, bringing the total to 39, Soelistyo added, but strong currents were hampering the work of remotely operated vehicles and divers.

Despite the relatively shallow waters in the Java Sea, no "ping" signal has been detected from the jet's black box data recorders to indicate the exact position of the wreckage.

“The problem may be that … the bottom of the sea is very muddy in this area so it could happen that the recorder … is under the mud and cannot be heard,” Troadec said. “The other problem is the noise environment in this area due to the waves, due to the other vessels. We have no reason to suspect that the pingers are not working because they are designed to face a crash in the sea.”

He said a thunderstorm in the area at the time of the crash was likely to be a factor “but to say that this is a cause of the accident is quite different.”

Even if the plane’s engines had been damaged by ice in the bad weather, modern aircraft are designed to glide, Troadec said. “Even if the engine stops the pilot can restart the engine. So it seems very premature to say that engine icing can be the cause of the accident.”

He added that the black boxes would contain “maybe 90 per cent of the information you need in the investigation.”

"When you examine the causes of the accident you can find that the weather is never the only cause of the accident," Troadec said. "It’s a factor because if the aircraft had not crossed the path of a thunderstorm most probably there should be no accident. So it’s a factor, but after this factor you certainly have other elements that the investigation will bring. Maybe human factor issues, maybe technical issue. Maybe all these factors combined together make the accident.”

NBC News' Katy Tur, Sossy Dombourian and Amalia Ahmed contributed to this report.