Brazil: Bodies found near jet crash site

June 7, 2009 8:20:42 AM PDT
Searchers found two bodies and a briefcase containing a ticket for Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean close to where the jetliner is believed to have crashed, a Brazil military official said Saturday. [INTERACTIVE: World's deadliest air disasters]

The French agency investigating the disaster, meanwhile, said airspeed instruments on the plane were not replaced as the maker recommended before the it disappeared in turbulent weather nearly a week ago.

The French accident investigation agency, BEA, found the plane received inconsistent airspeed readings from different instruments as it struggled in a massive thunderstorm on its flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris with 228 people aboard.

Airbus had recommended that all its airline customers replace speed-measuring instruments known as Pitot tubes on the A330, the model used for Flight 447, said Paul-Louis Arslanian, the head of the agency.

"They hadn't yet been replaced" on the plane that crashed, said Alain Bouillard, head of the French investigation. Air France declined immediate comment.

Arslanian of the BEA cautioned that it is too early to draw conclusions about the role of Pitot tubes in the crash, saying that "it does not mean that without replacing the Pitots that the A330 was dangerous."

He told a news conference at the agency's headquarters near Paris that the crash of Flight 447 does not mean similar planes are unsafe, adding that he told family members not to worry about flying.

Airbus had made the recommendation for "a number of reasons," he said.

The two male bodies were recovered Saturday morning about 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of where Air France Flight 447 emitted its last signals -- roughly 400 miles (640 kilometers) northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northern coast.

Brazilian air force spokesman Col. Jorge Amaral said an Air France ticket was found inside a leather briefcase.

"It was confirmed with Air France that the ticket number corresponds to a passenger on the flight," he said.

Admiral Edison Lawrence said the bodies were being transported to the Fernando de Noronha islands for identification. A backpack with a vaccination card also was recovered.

The finds could potentially establish a more precise search area for the crucial black box flight recorders that could tell investigators why the jet crashed, although Brazilian authorities refused to comment on implications for the search.

Investigators have been searching a zone of several hundred square miles (square kilometers) for debris. A blue plane seat with a serial number on it has been recovered -- but officials were still trying to confirm with Air France that it was a seat belonging to Flight 477.

The investigation is increasingly focused on whether external instruments may have iced over, confusing speed sensors and leading computers to set the plane's speed too fast or slow -- a potentially deadly mistake in severe turbulence.

Pitot tubes, protruding from the wing or fuselage of a plane, feed airspeed sensors and are heated to prevent icing. A blocked or malfunctioning Pitot tube could cause an airspeed sensor to malfunction and cause the computer controlling the plane to accelerate or decelerate in a potentially dangerous way.

Air France has already replaced the Pitots on another Airbus model, the 320, after its pilots reported similar problems with the instrument, according to an Air France air safety report filed by pilots in January and obtained by The Associated Press.

The report followed an incident in which an Air France flight from Tokyo to Paris reported problems with its airspeed indicators similar to those believed to have been encountered by Flight 447. In that case, the Pitot tubes were found to have been blocked by ice.

"Following similar problems frequently encountered on the A320 fleet, preventative actions have already been decided and applied," the safety report says. The Pitots on all Air France's A320s were retrofitted with new Pitots "less susceptible to these weather conditions."

The same report says Air France decided to increase the inspection frequency for its A330 and A340 jets' Pitot tubes, but that it had been waiting for a recommendation from Airbus before installing new Pitots.

As they try to locate the wreckage, investigators are relying on 24 messages the plane sent automatically during the last minutes of the flight.

The signals show the plane's autopilot was not on, officials said, but it was not clear if the autopilot had been switched off by the pilots or had stopped working because it received conflicting airspeed readings.

The flight disappeared nearly four hours after takeoff, killing all on board. It was Air France's deadliest plane crash and the world's worst commercial air accident since 2001.

The head of France's weather forecasting agency, Alain Ratier, said weather conditions at the time of the flight were not exceptional for the time of the year and region, which is known for violent stormy weather.

On Thursday, European plane maker Airbus sent an advisory to all operators of the A330 reminding them of how to handle the plane in conditions similar to those experienced by Flight 447.

Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that advisory and the Air France memo about replacing flight-speed instruments "certainly raises questions about whether the Pitot tubes, which are critical to the pilot's understanding of what's going on, were operating effectively."

Arslanian said it is vital to locate a small beacon called a "pinger" that should be attached to the cockpit voice and data recorders, now presumed to be deep in the Atlantic.

"We have no guarantee that the pinger is attached to the recorders," he said.

Holding up a pinger in the palm of his hand, he said: "This is what we are looking for in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean."

Currents could have scattered debris far along the ocean floor, he said.

President Barack Obama said at a news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy Saturday that the United States had authorized all of the U.S. government's resources to help investigate the crash.

BEA head Arslanian said U.S. forces have lent the agency acoustic systems that will be fitted to two naval vessels. France's Emeraude submarine and other high-tech equipment from French marine research institute Ifremer are also being sent to the region.

The submarine, to arrive next week, will try to detect signals from the black boxes, said military spokesman Christophe Prazuck.

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