Refuse to fly, pilots told

2009-06-09 07:51

Recife - Search crews have recovered 24 bodies of passengers on the Air France flight that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean eight days ago with 228 people on board, Brazil's military said on Monday. They also recovered a large tail section from the jetliner, helping narrow the hunt for "black boxes" that could reveal the disaster's cause.

Air Force Col Henry Munhoz says eight more bodies were found on Monday, near where 16 others were recovered since Saturday - roughly 640km northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northern coast, and about 70km from where the jet was last heard from on May 31.

Some high-tech help is on the way - two US Navy devices capable of picking up the flight recorders' emergency beacons far below on the ocean floor. What caused the Airbus A330-200 to plunge into the middle of the ocean on May 31 with 228 people on board might not be known until those black boxes are found.

But some Air France pilots aren't waiting for a definitive answer. With investigators looking at the possibility that external speed monitors iced over and gave dangerously false readings to cockpit computers in a thunderstorm, a union is urging pilots to refuse to fly Airbus A330 and A340 planes unless the monitors - known as Pitot tubes _ are replaced.

An internal memo sent to Air France pilots on Monday and obtained by The Associated Press urges them to refuse to fly unless at least two of the three Pitot sensors on each planes have been replaced. The instruments have drawn attention because of other incidents in which the monitors have iced over at high altitudes.

The leader of another pilots' union, however, said on Monday that Pitot troubles probably didn't cause the Flight 447 disaster.

Searchers must move quickly to find answers in the cockpit voice and data recorders, because acoustic pingers on the boxes begin to fade 30 days after crashes.

While large pieces of plane debris - along with 16 bodies - has helped narrow the search, it remains a daunting task in waters up to 2.5km deep and an ocean floor marked by rugged mountains.

Ocean currents

"Finding the debris helps because you can eliminate a large part of the ocean," said US Air Force Col Willie Berges, chief of the US military liaison office in Brazil and commander of the American military forces supporting the search operation.

But ocean currents over the eight days since the disaster have pushed floating wreckage far and wide, complicating the search, Berges said. "In the sense that as the debris drifts away, you're not sure exactly where the black boxes or other parts of the aircraft are on the bottom of the ocean."

The US Navy has helped locate black boxes in difficult situations before: pings from an Adam Air jet that crashed on January 1, 2007, off Indonesia's coast were picked up 25 days later by a navy team.

The two towed pinger locators the US is sending are expected to arrive in Brazil late on Monday and will be dropped into the ocean near the debris field by Thursday, Berges said. The search is focusing on several hundred square kilometres roughly 640km northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northern coast.

The listening devices themselves are five-feet long and weigh 70 pounds. One will be towed by a Brazilian ship, the other by a French vessel, slowly trawling in a grid pattern across the search area. The devices can detect emergency beacons to a depth of 6 100m.

Cables attached to the devices lead to on-board computers, enabling a 10-person team that accompanies each device to listen for pings and to visually see them on a screen, like a radar spotting objects in air.

The French nuclear attack submarine Emeraude, arriving later this week, also will try to find the acoustic pings, military spokesperson Christophe Prazuck said.

If the pings are located, French deep-water unmanned subs aboard the oceanographic survey ship Pourquoi Pas will attempt to retrieve the boxes from the ocean floor.

Inconsistent airspeed readings

This area of the Atlantic Ocean is littered with floating garbage, vexing the initial search effort. Days after the plane went down, the weather let up and bodies began to surface, giving searchers more to go on.

Searchers also spotted two airplane seats and debris with Air France's logo, and recovered dozens of structural components from the plane. They had already recovered jet wing fragments, and said hundreds of personal items believed to from passengers were plucked from the water.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Brazil's military would do all it can to recover bodies for grieving families. "During this painful time it's not going to resolve the problem, but it is an immense comfort to know they can bury their loved ones," he said on his national radio programme on Monday.

France is leading the investigation into the cause, while Brazil focuses on the recovery of bodies and wreckage. The Ventose, a French military frigate now operating under Brazilian command, has brought aboard seven of the 16 bodies and about 30 pieces of debris that "most probably come from the plane," Prazuck said.

Brazil says the search area lies southeast of the jet's last transmission - automatic messages signalling catastrophic electrical failure and loss of cabin pressure. The messages mean Flight 447 likely broke apart in turbulent weather while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The location of the wreckage could mean the pilot was trying to turn around in mid-flight.

The L-shaped metal Pitot tubes jut from the wing or fuselage of a plane, and are heated to prevent icing. The pressure of air entering the tubes lets sensors measure the speed and angle of flight. An iced-over, blocked or malfunctioning Pitot tube could cause an airspeed sensor to fail, and lead the computer controlling the plane to accelerate or decelerate in a potentially dangerous fashion.

Air France said it began replacing the Pitot tubes on the Airbus A330 model on April 27 after an improved version became available, and will finish the work in the "coming weeks". The monitors had not yet been replaced on the plane that crashed.

An official with the Alter union, speaking on condition of anonymity because the memo was not publicly released, said there is a "strong presumption" among their pilot members that a Pitot problem precipitated the crash. The memo says the airline should have grounded all A330 and A340 jets pending the replacement, and warns of a "real risk of loss of control" due to Pitot problems.

France's investigating agency said the messages suggest the plane received inconsistent airspeed readings from different instruments as it struggled in a violent thunderstorm.

But the secretary general of another French pilots' union, SNPL, said on Monday the tubes were not likely the cause of the crash. Pitots are "a possible contributing factor", Julien Gourguechon said, but even without them, "we can make the plane fly".