Experts begin to identify Air France crash bodies
Published 10/06/2009 | 08:22
The grim task of identifying victims of the Air France plane crash will begin today.
Seventeen more bodies were pulled from the sea yesterday, bringing the number recovered to 41. Another 187 have yet to be found.
The first remains were brought to land by helicopter and will be flown to the coastal city of Recife, Brazil, today for identification.
Police began visiting families in Rio de Janeiro to collect genetic material - hair, blood, a cheek swab - to help identify the bodies.
Air France Flight 447 disappeared on May 31 with 228 people on board, including five Britons.
Wreckage and bodies were found about 400 miles north east of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northern coast, and about 45 miles from where air traffic controllers last heard from the Airbus A330-200.
Working out where the victims were seated and studying their injuries might help explain what brought down Flight 447 as it flew into a thunderstorm, said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the US National Transportation Safety Board.
Meanwhile airlines moved quickly to replace speed monitors suspected of feeding false information to the doomed plane's computers.
With the plane's data recorders still missing, investigators have been focusing on the possibility that external speed monitors - called Pitot tubes - iced over and gave false readings to the plane's computers in the thunderstorm.
A key part of the investigation relies on a burst of 24 automatic messages the plane sent during the last minutes of the flight. The signals showed 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 of conflicting airspeed readings.
The L-shaped metal Pitot tubes jut from the wing or fuselage of a plane and are usually heated to prevent icing. The pressure of air entering the tubes lets internal sensors measure the speed and angle of flight.
A malfunctioning tube could mislead computers controlling the plane to dangerously accelerate or decelerate.
Air France said it began replacing the tubes on its A330 and A340 jets in May after pilots reported several incidents of icing leading to a loss of airspeed data, and that it had already replaced the Pitots in smaller A320 jets after similar problems were reported.
"What we know is that other planes that have experienced incorrect airspeed indications have had the same Pitots. And airplanes with the new Pitot tubes have never had such problems," said Air France pilot Eric Derivry, a spokesman for the SNPL pilots union.
While no cause has been established for the disaster, Mr Derivry said the Pitot failures created "a web of presumptions, but only presumptions" that they could be a contributing factor.
The monitors had not yet been replaced on the A330 that was destroyed on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
Yesterday Air France assured its pilots that none of its A330s or A340s would fly without at least two of the new instruments and that all Air France A330s and A340s would have all three Pitots replaced by July. Brazil's air force said it was replacing them for the president's jet.
But some pilots said the planes should remain flyable even if Pitot tubes iced over in thunderstorms. And the European Aviation Safety Agency issued a precautionary safety bulletin yesterday reminding operators about existing procedures to safely fly the aircraft even when air speed indicators malfunction.
About 70 airlines operate some 600 A330 planes similar to the doomed Air France jet and two companies manufacture the Pitot monitors for them: France's Thales Group and Charlotte, North Carolina-based Goodrich.
Thales made the Pitot tubes on the plane that crashed, company spokeswoman Caroline Philips said.
Some major airlines - including US carriers United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Delta's Northwest Airlines subsidiary and US Airways - said they were upgrading the devices on their Airbus planes, according to the manufacturer's recommendation, and warning pilots in the meantime.
Airline industry officials also rallied to defend Airbus. At an industry conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Emirates Airlines president Tim Clark said the Dubai-based company's 29 A330-200 planes had been flying since 1998 "and there is absolutely no reason why there should be any question over this plane".
The investigation was also examining the Air France plane's vertical stabiliser from the tail section, which was found floating in the ocean.
Mr Goelz said the faulty airspeed readings and the fact that the vertical stabiliser was sheared from the jet could be related.
The Airbus A330-200 has a "rudder limiter" that restricts the movement of the rudder at high speeds. If it were to move too far while travelling too fast, it could shear off and take the vertical stabiliser with it.