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Nuclear submarine joins the search for Flight 447 black boxes

Thursday, June 11th 2009 - 11:12 UTC
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The search for victims and debris from Air France Flight 447 that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean last week now stretches from Brazil to the coast of Africa, as a French nuclear submarine began Wednesday hunting for the flight recorders.

Brazil’s Air Force transported 16 bodies by helicopter from ships to the island of Fernando de Noronha and from there to the city of Recife for identification, the military said. Twenty-five more bodies are due to arrive on the island Thursday.

The military will meet next week to discuss how long salvage teams will keep trying to find corpses. “We believe the operation will be continued until at least June 19,” Air Force Brigadier Ramon Cardoso told a news conference in Recife.

“Every day the chances of recovering bodies become slimmer.”

The search area expanded to waters under the jurisdiction of Senegal, on Africa’s western coast, some 3,200 kilometres from Recife. The French navy’s nuclear hunter-killer submarine Emeraude, equipped with advanced listening equipment, began patrolling Wednesday to locate the flight recorders, or black boxes, which may provide clues to what caused the crash, but must be recovered before their locator beacons run out of power.

If the boxes are not recovered within three weeks they might never be found, complicating the investigation into the loss of Flight 447 from Rio to Paris, which crashed on June 1 with the loss of 228 people.

“The Emeraude has begun its search operations,” said French military spokesman Captain Christophe Prazuck said in Paris.

The first search zone measured 36 kilometres by 36, which the sub should cover in a day, Prazuck said.

The French military also has three patrol planes and the Ventose frigate helping to locate and recover debris and bodies. The Ventose has already picked up more than a hundred pieces of the plane, the French military said in a release.

Investigators are examining whether ice damage or the obstruction of the plane’s airspeed sensors caused unreliable readings that may have contributed to the June 1 crash of the Airbus SAS A330-200.

Accurate airspeed readings are crucial because flying too quickly can damage a plane’s airframe, while travelling too slowly produces a stall and loss of control.

Following the crash Air France and France-based Airbus issued reminders to pilots of procedures to follow when measurements become unreliable. The plane maker recommended in September 2007 that airlines replace the Thales SA speed sensors, known as Pitot tubes, on single-aisle A320-series planes as well as on the A330 and A340.

In related news the Brazilian Air Force reported that the Airbus A319CJ which flies President Lula da Silva (Brazil’s Air Force One or AeroLula) has incorporated a new speed sensors system.

“Taking advantage of the programmed maintenance of the presidential aircraft, a new ‘pitot probes’ system suggested by Airbus has been installed”, said the Air Force spokesperson Colonel Henry Munhoz.

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