Air France to replace speed probes after crash

Air France is to replace the airspeed probes on its Airbus A330 jets within days after one plunged into the Atlantic, pilots said on Tuesday, as salvage crews recovered more bodies and debris.

The decision to fit new "pitot probes" on A330 and A340 planes came as one French union urged pilots not to fly the jets after the crew of flight AF447 from Rio to Paris lost control and crashed, killing all 228 on board.

Air France has said it is stepping up replacement of the sensors 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.

This, in turn, could have caused the pilots to fly too slow, and stall, or too fast, and rip the airframe apart, aviation experts say.

"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, spokesman for the SNPL union, said Tuesday.

Air France refused to comment on the union statement.

Airbus, Air France and official accident investigators have not confirmed a link between the pitots and the crash, but all have renewed warnings to pilots about contradictory speed readings since AF 447 went down.

The June 1 Rio de Janeiro-Paris crash 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.

According to a memo obtained by AFP, Air France warned its pilots in November about "a significant number of incidents" linked to the pitots.

The memo, dated November 6, 2008, describes false speed readings; different speed readings on the pilot's control panel and that of the co-pilot; and the automatic pilot cutting out.

Two Air France pilots, who preferred to remain anonymous, confirmed the document's authenticity to AFP.

For one of them, the memo showed that "Air France knew from November 2008 the problems that seem to explain the catastrophe of AF 477."

Separately, 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 pitot probes have been replaced.

The larger SNPL was in talks with management Tuesday 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 whole fleet of these jets already had at least one new pitot, from at least three per plane, and that there was a programme in place to replace the rest.

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.

after giving birth at the Vancouver Aquarium. AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck