Air France 447 - Brazilian Crews Recover Two Bodies From Jetliner Crash

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Published: June 6, 2009

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Search crews recovered the bodies of two men in the Atlantic Ocean Saturday morning about 40 miles from where Air France Flight 447 last gave its position before vanishing last Sunday night. The announcement came just hours after French investigators said that the airline had not yet replaced a key part for monitoring air speed on the plane as recommended by its manufacturer.

Eraldo Peres/Associated Press

A Brazilian Air Force radar plane, in the background, landing Saturday after a search mission off Brazil’s northeastern coast.

The bodies and some personal items — which appeared to be the first physical evidence of the plane — were fished from the sea hundreds of miles off Brazil’s northeast coast, according to Brazilian officials. Crews also found a leather briefcase containing an Air France boarding pass with the flight number on it, a blue airplane seat with a serial number and a nylon backpack with a vaccination card inside, the officials said.

“The important thing is taking the weight off the shoulders of the relatives,” Jorge Amaral, the assistant head of the Brazilian Air Force Press Office, said at a news conference. “It’s sad news, but it will bring them a certain comfort.”

The jet was carrying 216 passengers and 12 crew members.

Investigators have been looking into whether inconsistent speed measurements could have played a role in the crash of the Airbus 330. The speed-sensing system includes what is known as a Pitot tube, the part Airbus recommended replacing on some of its planes. The tubes are vulnerable to icing in high-altitude storms, the type of weather the plane may have encountered four hours into the flight to Paris from Rio de Janeiro.

Still, Paul-Louis Arslanian, director of the French agency investigating the disaster, BEA, said Saturday at a news conference that it was “far too early to conclude” that a malfunction of the sensors was to blame for the accident, saying that the crew might still have been able to fly the aircraft if it had “degraded systems.” And an Airbus spokesman said the company issued its advisory two years ago because a better part was available, not because the existing one was “a safety issue.”

Air-speed sensors can be crucial to the pilots’ ability to control an aircraft. A plane that flies too slowly can lose lift and crash, while one that is moving too fast can break up in the air.

Airbus said that it had informed air safety regulators in Europe and North America about the recommendation, but on Friday a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration was not able to confirm this, and said that there were no plans to turn the recommendation into a requirement.

In a statement posted on its Web site late Saturday, Air France said that the replacement had only been recommended by Airbus, and that regulators would have made it mandatory “should flight safety be concerned.”

The company said it had replaced the tubes on its A320s, a smaller plane earlier, because some of the tubes had malfunctioned on that model. Airbus initially did not think the redesigned tube would solve the problem on the 330, which had fewer tube malfunctions, but after lab tests this year showed an improvement, Air France began a replacement program on the larger planes, the airline said.

Although the tube has not been conclusively implicated in the crash, the airline said it was speeding up the replacements.

Stefan Schaffrath, the Airbus spokesman who confirmed the recommendation to replace the tubes, said the advice was issued because there was a new generation of devices out there with improved performance regarding its measurement capability. “This is nothing unusual, as there are constant updates ongoing throughout the life of an aircraft,” he said.

The discovery on Saturday came after the Brazilian military had recovered floating debris on Thursday and mistakenly concluded that it had belonged to the plane, drawing criticism from French investigators. The military then circled back to try to find other flotsam that surveillance aircraft had sighted earlier in the week.

The crew’s discovery on Saturday offered some relatives of the victims at least a small measure of relief.

“Each relative has a different reaction, but I personally think it is good because you at least know where to start looking and you can begin to understand what is going on,” said Marco Tulio Moreno, whose parents were on the flight and who spoke on Globo News, a television news channel.

At least five ships and as many as 14 search planes from France and Brazil have been scouring a 50-mile-long strip of water just north of the equator searching for remains and debris that might help crews locate the black boxes that will be the key to determining what happened to Flight 447.

Those boxes, which contain data and voice recorders, probably rest at the bottom of the ocean, submerged in 3,000 to 13,000 feet of water in rocky and muddy terrain. The boxes emit signals from a “pinger,” but those will start to fade after 30 days. The French Navy is sending a nuclear-powered submarine to the area in an effort to detect the signals.

Finding the bodies and the debris Saturday could help the search for the black boxes, since investigators will calculate the winds and currents in the area to try to determine where the plane entered the water. Before crews were searching in the general area of the flight path.

But even so, the search will not be easy.

At Saturday’s news conference, the French investigator held up a pinger — a canister about the size of the cardboard inside a toilet paper roll — and said: “This is what we are looking for in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Andrew Downie reported from São Paulo, and Nicola Clark from Paris. Liz Robbins and Matthew L. Wald contributed reporting from New York.

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