Air France is to replace the airspeed probes on its Airbus A330 jets within days after one plunged into the Atlantic, pilots said today. The decision to fit new "pilot probes" on A330 and A340 planes came as a French Union urged pilots not to fly the jets after the crew of flight Air France Flight 447 crashed last week, killing all 228 on board. Brazilian naval crews recovered the tail fin belonging to the missing Air France jet yesterday. Salvage crews have fished out 24 bodies from the Atlantic so far.
The tail fin discovery is an important element in the quest to find out why the Airbus A330 went down, as the plane's black box flight data recorders were mounted in the tail section. A French submarine is expected to arrive in the zone tomorrow to continue the underwater search for the devices. Air France has said it is stepping up sensor replacements on its A330s, amid speculation that they may have iced up during a storm at high altitude and supplied false airspeed data to the cockpit.
Aviation experts say this could have caused the pilots to fly too slow and stall or too fast and rip the airframe apart. "Air France management summoned pilots' unions on Monday night to inform them on work to replace Pitot probes, and gave an extremely tight calendar... of a few days," Erick Derivry, a spokesman for the SNPL union, said today. Air France refused to comment on the union statement.
Airbus, Air France and official accident investigators have not confirmed a link between the pilots and the crash, but all have renewed warnings to pilots about contradictory speed-readings since Flight 447 went down. The Rio de Janeiro-Paris crash, which happened on June 1, is the worst aviation accident since 2001, and unprecedented in Air France's 75-year history. The doomed jet broadcast a series of 24 automatic error messages as its systems shut down one-by-one in its final minutes, and French investigators say the cockpit was receiving conflicting speed data.
The pilots' union Alter, which represents a minority of Air France crews, denounced the airline for not taking the A330 and A340 out of service until all the pilot probes have been replaced. The larger SNPL was in talks with management today and has not yet called for a boycott. It called on flight crew to boycott the planes, hundreds of which are in service around the world, until the fleet is modernised.
An Air France spokesman said each of the airline's fleet of the jets already had at least one new pilot, from at least three per plane, and that there was a programme in place to replace the rest. A Brazilian frigate was expected to day in the Fernando de Noronha archipelago, carrying the first 16 bodies along with aeroplane debris, the air force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Henry Munhoz said. From there, the bodies and debris will be taken to the mainland coastal city of Recife, where investigators hope to identify the remains by checking dental records and DNA samples provided by relatives.
In Recife, French investigators will also go over the plane's components. Brazilian and French teams continue to scour the crash zone 1,100 kilometres off Brazil's north-east coast. The clock is ticking for finding the black boxes, believed to lie on the sea floor at a depth of up to 6,000 metres. Their homing beacons will cease to operate in three weeks. The US Navy said on Sunday it would send two towable "pinger" locaters and a crew of around 20 to the scene this week to join the hunt.
If the voice and data recorders are found a French research sub, the same one that has explored the wreck of the Titanic, will dive to recover them. This small sub, the Nautile, is also expected to arrive within days. * AFP