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Air France pilot absent at start of descent

The flight recorders from an Air France plane that crashed nearly two years ago show that the captain only arrived in the cockpit after the plane had begun its fateful descent, officials said today.

The initial findings of the French air accident investigation agency, the BEA, based on a reading of the black boxes recovered from the ocean depths, found that the captain had been resting when the emergency began.

All 228 aboard the Rio de Janeiro to Paris flight were killed on June 1, 2009.

"At the time of the event, the two co-pilots were seated in the cockpit and the captain was resting," a BEA statement says. The captain returned to the cockpit about 1 and a half minutes after the autopilot disengaged at 2.10am and 5 seconds, Coordinated Universal Time, equivalent to GMT but more precise.

The recordings stopped at 2.14am and 28 seconds — just under 8 and a half minutes after the co-pilot at the controls, one of three members of the flight crew, advised the cabin crew "you should watch out" for turbulence ahead.

However, turbulence was not excessive as the plane, which had stalled three times, tried to negotiate a normal path — passing through a heavy layer of clouds.

The highly technical report did not analyse the data or cockpit conversations or assign blame.

It also did not, for instance, suggest whether the Pitot tubes, the plane's speed sensors — which investigators have said likely played a role — were the main culprits, or whether the temporary absence of Captain Marc Dubois from the cockpit had any impact on the quickly unfolding events.

So far, the searchers have not found the plane's Pitot tubes.

Co-pilot Pierre-Cedric Bonin, 32, was at the controls as the plane went down, sitting to the right of a second co-pilot, David Robert, 37.

Pilots on long-haul flights often take turns at the controls to remain alert.

Dubois returned to the cockpit almost a minute after the plane had begun its descent from 38,000 feet (11,600 meters), where it had climbed. He did not take back the controls, and the two co-pilots tried without success to bring the plane out of its stall and stop its fall.

The last recorded measurement shows the plane plummeting at 10,912 feet per minute (124 mph).

The flight recorders were found along with bodies in the latest search of the ocean depths last month.