Search for Doomed Air France Airbus A330 to Resume

 - December 10, 2010, 6:14 AM
Although the BEA has identified jammed pitot tubes as a contributing factor in the crash of an Airbus A330-200 into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, authorities need the airplane’s flight recorders to confirm their conclusions. (Photo: copyright Airbus)

The effort to find out what happened to Air France Flight 447 on June 1, 2009 seemed all but over in France, when the government announced the launch of a fourth search campaign and the airline pointed a finger of responsibility at Airbus. All 228 aboard the Airbus A330-200 flying from Rio to Paris died when it crashed into the South Atlantic.

Late last month, France’s recently appointed Minister of Transport, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, said that another attempt to find the wreckage would begin in February. The French air accident investigation office (BEA) plans to issue details in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the lawyer representing Air France has transmitted to the investigating magistrate in France a memorandum that attempts to demonstrate the carrier did its best to rectify problems with its fleet’s pitot speed probes when they appeared in 2008. In the document, Airbus appeared slow to answer Air France’s requests for fixing the issue.

The French daily Libération published extensive excerpts of the memorandum, and lawyer Fernand Garnault confirmed them to AIN. So far, BEA investigators have deemed jamming of the pitot probes a contributing factor in the accident. However, they lack evidence from the flight recorders and the wreckage, which still lie somewhere on the seabed.

Air France says it recorded 15 high-altitude icing incidents with Thales AA pitot probes (the model installed on the accident A330) on its Airbus long-haul fleet during the 10 months preceding the crash. In July 2008, Air France alerted Airbus after two incidents in May and July. After four more incidents, it sent an e-mail to Airbus in September. “The numerous occurrences over the past four months are of great concern for Air France because safety is at stake,” the e-mail reads.

At the time, the company asked whether the Thales BA probe, offered as an option since the year before, could serve as a solution. Airbus had described the BA probe as more resistant to icing. Then came a series of back-and-forth messages about the merits of the two Thales probe models as well as Goodrich’s 0851HL. At some point, Airbus appeared to change its mind, further complicating Air France’s decision. Air France was about to replace Thales AA probes when the accident happened.

The memorandum also mentions Airbus’s offer of a “workaround” solution for crews to fly safely in case they lost speed indications. Lufthansa bought the option; Air France did not.

On Aug. 31, 2009, an EASA airworthiness directive banned Thales AA probes. It also limited the use of Thales BA probes, believed to perform better, to one out of the three probes on an A330. The other two probes need to be Goodrich 0851HL models.