Ten minutes later, the autopilot switched off and a four-minute series of automatic failure and warning messages from the plane’s Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System were relayed by satellite to Air France headquarters.
It is difficult to imagine the scene within the cockpit of the plane being thrown about by a raging hail storm in the middle of the night, but the automatic messages provide some clues.
With the autopilot disengaged, the pilots had to manually contend with an ever-escalating series of failures in the flight control systems. All of this had to be done with alarms sounding, in absolute darkness, with no natural horizon to observe and with aerodynamic forces erasing all sense of up or down. The pilots were entirely dependent upon the plane’s instruments and the sensors that provided electronic data.
Then, there was a cascading series of failures within the flight control computer and systems to monitor air speed, altitude and direction.
The pilots were flying blind.
The wing spoilers failed, the rudder limiter became inoperative and the rudder may have locked into place. At this point, it is likely that the plastic stabilizer was ripped from the plane. 
There is little or no likelihood that we will ever know whether the tail fin was blown off by the storm, as a result of the pilot’s attempt to control the plane, or by uncontrolled movements of the rudder.
What then happened, aerodynamically, is that without the vertical stabilizer and engine control, the airplane was like a giant Frisbee spinning through the storm until it fell apart.
The last automatic message confirmed a complete electrical failure and a loss of cabin pressure, as the plane plunged down almost seven miles in less than a minute to the ocean surface.
We can try to imagine the scene on the flight deck and in the passenger compartment; however, we cannot possibly feel the terror experienced by everyone aboard, including seven children and one baby.
During the long 14 minutes, as the pilots fought to control the aircraft, everything trusted by those who boarded the aircraft failed – catastrophically. In addition to their terror, they must have felt terribly betrayed.
To date, several large pieces of the aircraft fuselage, and the virtually intact vertical stabilizer, have been recovered from the ocean. All indications are that the plane broke up in midair. There is no evidence of fire.
50 bodies have been recovered, and almost all had multiple fractures, but no burns. Water was not found in the lungs of any victims. They were spread up to 53 miles apart, further confirming that the plane undoubtedly broke apart at high altitude.
A concentrated, multi-national effort, including nuclear submarines, is being made to locate the flight data and voice recorders from ocean depths of more than 15,000 feet and very rugged underwater terrain, before the attached "pingers" become silent after approximately 30 days.
There are early indications that speed sensors may have iced up in the storm and provided inconsistent speed readings, which may have initially caused the cascading failures of flight control systems aboard the plane. We may never know for sure exactly what initiated the collapse of systems unless the "black boxes" are found, which is increasingly unlikely with each passing day.
All we know for sure is that the plastic tail fin separated from the fuselage under conditions that should have been expected to occur at some time during the life of the airplane.