Golden ears’ on nuclear submarine

A French nuclear submarine today began combing the Atlantic depths off Brazil in search of signals that would pinpoint the flight recorders that could explain why Air France flight 447 crashed last week. Aboard the Emeraude, crewmen called “golden ears” were straining to pick up in their headsets the acoustic “pings” which aircraft black boxes are supposed to transmit for 30 days under water. Nothing is better equipped for such faint sounds than an attack submarine with sophisticated sonar gear for detecting vessels deep in the ocean, naval officers said. As the Emeraude, with 72 men aboard, worked along with two US sonar-detecting vessels, the Brazilian and French navies continued to collect bodies and debris form the Airbus 330 airliner, which smashed into the Atlantic about 1,000 miles off Brazil with 228 people aboard.

Over 40 bodies had been plucked from the water and the first half-dozen were to be flown to Recife on the mainland for identification by fingerprints, body markings, teeth and DNA if necessary. Passengers’ belongings were also collected bobbing on the ocean surface. Large fragments of the aircraft were also being taken back for inspection.

The submarine is searching a zone over 100 miles from the area to where currents and winds carried the crash debris. The French Navy was cautious about the chances of success in one of the most difficult searches ever tried. “There are big uncertainties about the accident site. The ocean floor is rugged so it’s going to be very difficult and we’re going to need a lot of luck,” said Major Patrick Prazuck, the armed forces spokesman. The submarine had to pass very close to the boxes if it were to have a chance of detecting them, he said. Once the voice and data recorders are found, a French remote-controlled submarine will try to retrieve them with a robot arm. No flight recorders have been retrieved from the 12,000ft depth where those of Flight 447 are believed to lie.

In Europe, passengers had had a scare today when a Spanish-operated Airbus A320 made an emergency landing in the Canary Islands after suffering a failure in one of its two engines. The Iberworld airliner, smaller than the A330, had just left Las Palmas to fly Norwegian tourists to Oslo when there was a jolt and the pilots turned round to make a safe landing. Some passengers said that they had seen flames but the airline did not identify the engine problem. Air France pilots have voiced satisfaction with the airline’s swift replacement of speed sensors on all its 35 Airbus long-range aircraft. Faulty readings by the external sensors or pilot tubes, perhaps because of ice, are believed to have started the chain of events that led to the disaster.

Air France has acknowledged that its aircraft had suffered from a series of upsets in cruising flight over the past two years which were caused by faulty speed readings and subsequent malfunction in the automatic flight system. Several other airlines have reported similar upsets in their fleets of A330s and A340s. Louis Jobard, head of the Air France section of the SNPL, the main pilots’ union, said that it was common sense to modify the pilot tubes after the airspeed incidents, from which other airliners had been able to recover after three or four minutes. We are not especially worried,” Mr. Jobard said. “When there are erroneous speed readings, we follow a checklist of procedures for which we are trained. Of course they are much more difficult to deal with when in an unfavorable environment with storms and severe turbulence like 447 went through,” he said. All the clues to the Airbus’s fate so far have come from data transmitted automatically back to the airline’s maintenance base outside Paris during the last four minutes of flight. An understanding of the disaster would be immensely improved with information from the flight deck voice recorder and the flight data recorded on the black boxes. French officials continued to say that they did not rule out any cause, including terrorism. However Air accident experts played down the significance of a French media report that two passengers aboard the plane had names similar to those of two suspected Islamic radicals who are on a watch list compiled by French intelligence. The four-minute sequence of system failures reported from the stricken Airbus would not be consistent with a bomb explosion, a suicidal pilot or a fight between hijackers and the pilots.


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