Air France switches to new speed sensors

June 15, 2009 6:53:49 AM PDT
Air France has replaced the air speed sensors on its entire fleet of Airbus A330 and A340 long-haul aircraft, a pilots' union official said Monday. The company had been under pressure from pilots who feared the devices could be linked to the crash of Flight 447. In the deep waters of the mid-Atlantic, a Dutch ship towing a high-tech, U.S. Navy listening device was to begin trolling Monday in search of the flight data and voice recorders that investigators say are key to determining what caused the Air France jet to crash into the ocean with 228 people on board.

Investigators looking into the May 31 crash of Air France Flight 447 have so far focused on the possibility that external speed monitors - called Pitot tubes - iced over and gave false readings to the plane's computers.

In the weeks before the accident, Air France had begun replacing the tubes on its A330 and A340 jets, but not yet on the plane that crashed. After the accident, the airline pledged to speed up the switch and complete it by the end of this month, after pilots complained that the change was not proceeding quickly enough.

The whole fleet "is equipped since the end of last week with Thales' BA sensors," said Erick Derivry, a spokesman for the SNPL pilots' union. The crashed jet was equipped with the older AA model sensors, which Airbus has recommended airlines replace.

Despite questions about the performance of the Pitot tubes on the disappeared jet, Derivry stressed, "Today it is not proven or established that the AA model probes are at the origin of the accident."

Air France officials were not immediately available to confirm that the sensors had been replaced.

Concern about the crash clouded the Paris Air Show, where aviation industry officials, jetmakers and airline executives gathered Monday amid bleak prospects for the sector. Qatar Airways' head, Akbar al-Baker, said his airline was in the process of replacing its Pitot tubes before the accident.

An official of the French accident investigation agency, BEA, arrived in the Brazilian city of Recife on Sunday to begin examining some of the debris retrieved from the ocean. It was unclear whether the BEA would continue analyzing the pieces in Brazil or have them shipped to France.

French Ambassador Pierre-Jean Vandoorne, who is liaising between the families of the victims and the authorities, said Monday he met in Recife with those in charge of the Brazilian search, said that the search teams are not scaling back.

"No date has yet been fixed regarding an eventual halt to the search at sea," he said on France-2 television. He said Brazilian and French aviation have already spent 1,000 flight hours looking for victims and debris.

He would not comment on the nationality of the bodies found so far. Coroners have said victims' dental records and DNA samples from relatives will be necessary to confirm the identities of the 16 bodies that have been examined so far.

Brazilian authorities say they have recovered 43 bodies and another six have been pulled from the Atlantic by French ships.

The U.S. Navy device, called a Towed Pinger Locator, will try to detect emergency audio beacons, or pings, from Flight 447's black boxes, which could be lying thousands of feet (meters) below the ocean surface.

The initial search area spans a 2,000-square-mile (5,180-square-kilometer) area of the Atlantic, said U.S. Air Force Col. Willie Berges, commander of the American military forces supporting the search operation.

The ship was set to embark on a grid pattern search after receiving instructions from French military officials also using a nuclear submarine to search for the black boxes, Berges said. A second Dutch ship carrying another pinger locater was expected to arrive in the area Monday afternoon.

Without the recorders, it may be impossible to ever know what caused the Airbus A330 to crash several hundred miles off Brazil's northeastern coast on May 31 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

Thus far, there is no evidence of an explosion or terrorist act, just clues that point to systemic failures on the plane. Experts say the evidence uncovered up until now points to at least a partial midair breakup of the plane.

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Associated Press writer Greg Keller contributed to this report.

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