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French nuclear sub at crash site in search of black boxes

A FRENCH nuclear submarine reached the crash zone of Air France flight 447 yesterday to join the search for the plane's black boxes, the key to determining what brought the Airbus down in the sea off Brazil with 228 people on board.

The attack sub Emeraude plans to trawl 35 square kilometers a day, using sonar to try to pick up the boxes' acoustic beacons or "pingers," French armed forces spokesman Christophe Prazuck said yesterday.

It's a race against time, because the beacons will start to fade 30 days after the May 31 crash. If the boxes are spotted, the Emeraude will work with the mini-sub Nautile, which can descend to the ocean floor and was a key part of the search for the Titanic.

"There are big uncertainties about the accident site, the ocean floor is rugged ... so it's going to be very difficult," Prazuck told France-Info radio. "It's going to be very complicated and we're going to need a lot of luck" to find the black boxes.

The French submarines will be aided by two United States underwater audio devices capable of picking up signals even at a depth of 6,100 meters. One of those devices was being loaded yesterday on to a ship off Brazil's northeastern coast.

Forty-one bodies have been recovered so far from the scene of the crash, 640km northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northern coast. The remains are being flown daily to Recife, where investigators hope to identify them and uncover clues into the crash based on the victims' injuries.

Prazuck told Associated Press Television News that a French frigate, the Ventose, had already gathered 130 pieces of debris, including big and small pieces. The debris was being desalted and was to be taken to an undisclosed location for further analysis, he said.

Without key information from the Airbus A330's missing data recorders, investigators have focused on the possibility that external speed monitors - Pitot tubes - iced over and gave false readings to the plane's computers as it flew into thunderstorms.

Airlines around the world have begun replacing Pitot tubes on their aircraft. And the European Aviation Safety Agency, responsible for the certification of Airbus planes, said it was "analyzing data with a view to issuing mandatory corrective action" following reports about the possible malfunctioning of the Pitot tubes. But it also said the A330 and other Airbus aircraft are safe to operate.

The agency issued a safety information bulletin on Tuesday as a precautionary measure reminding operators of the correct procedure if speed indications are unreliable or missing.


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