After bodies, search at jet crash zone turns to black boxes

After helping Brazil’s navy recover at least 41 bodies from the Atlantic, France on Wednesday turns to hunting for the black boxes from an Air France jet that came down last week, killing all 228
people on board.

A French military nuclear submarine, Emeraud, was to arrive at the crash zone, 1 100km off Brazil’s north-east coast, in an effort to locate the homing beacons from the data and voice recorders of flight AF 447, which plunged into the ocean June 1 in the worst air disaster since 2001.

Preparations were also being made to equip two French tugboats with underwater pinger locators on loan from the US military that could pick up signals from the devices, believed to lie on the seabed as deep as 6 000m below the surface.

A French research vessel was also expected to arrive in the area on Thursday, carrying deep-sea mini-subs that could be used to recover the black boxes.

It is hoped the boxes — in reality bright orange — hold some clues as to what brought down the Air France Airbus A330 as it was flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

No distress call was received from the pilots, but there was a series of 24 data alerts sent automatically by the plane in its final minutes in the air.

Those messages showed the cockpit was getting faulty airspeed readings and autopilot was suddenly disengaged. Navigation and power systems also failed.

Those messages have focused suspicions on the plane’s exterior airspeed sensors, tubes known as pitot probes.

There is speculation the tubes may have iced up during a storm at high altitude, leaving the Air France pilots to guess how fast they were going as they flew into a fierce and disorienting Atlantic storm.

If the pilots were flying too slow the plane could have stalled, or if they pushed the Airbus too fast it could have ripped the frame apart, aviation experts say.

Plane-maker Airbus and Air France say older pitot probes have been problematic on other Airbus A330s and A340s.

Air France has accelerated a programme to replace those sensors with a newer type of pitot probe since the disaster. Its pilots are refusing to fly A330s and A340s unless the planes have at least two of the newer probes fitted.

The European agency for air safety insisted on Tuesday that Airbus models including the A330 were ”safe to operate”, but added a bulletin had been sent to remind airlines of what to do ”in the
event of loss of, or unreliable, speed indication”.

The disaster of flight AF 447 from Rio was the deadliest in Air France’s 75-year history.

Brazilian officials said late on Tuesday a total of 41 bodies had been recovered in operations begun on the weekend.

The first 16 of the bodies arrived early on Tuesday at Brazil’s archipelago of Fernando de Noronha. The other 25 were on their way to those islands.

Once photographed and inspected for distinguishing features such as tattoos, piercings or unique physical characteristics, the remains were to be flown to the mainland coastal city of Recife for
formal identification.

That process was to involve DNA samples from relatives. Interpol was assisting because of the wide mix of nationalities — 32 in all — on the flight.

Most passengers on the plane were French, Brazilian or German. – AFP



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