NBC News and news services
updated 10:33 p.m. ET, Sat., June 6, 2009
PARIS - Searchers found two bodies and a briefcase containing a ticket for Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean close to where the jetliner is believed to have crashed, a Brazil military official said Saturday.
The U.S. Navy is sending two "pinger locators" to aid in the deep sea search for the "black box" from the ill-fated flight, U.S. officials told NBC News. The U.S. officials said the locators will be towed behind two French tug boats that are en route to the site. The listening devices can detect signals from a pinger at 20,000 feet, nearly four miles, beneath the ocean's surface.
A U.S. Navy team of about 20 will accompany the pinger locators, which will be flown by commercial air to Brazil on Monday.
The French agency investigating the disaster, meanwhile, said airspeed instruments on the plane were not replaced as the maker recommended before it disappeared in turbulent weather nearly a week ago.
Air France acknowledged on Saturday that speed monitors on Airbus planes have proven faulty, icing up at high altitude, and that recommendations to change them were first made in September 2007. Air France said it began replacing the monitors on the Airbus A330 model on April 27.
The French accident investigation agency, BEA, found the doomed plane received inconsistent airspeed readings by different instruments as it struggled in a massive thunderstorm on its flight with 228 people aboard.
Airbus had recommended to all its airline customers that they replace speed-measuring instruments known as Pitot tubes on the A330, the model used for Flight 447, said Paul-Louis Arslanian, the head of the agency.
"They hadn't yet been replaced" on the plane that crashed, said Alain Bouillard, head of the French investigation. Air France declined immediate comment.
Arslanian of the BEA cautioned that it is too early to draw conclusions about the role of Pitot tubes in the crash, saying that "it does not mean that without replacing the Pitots that the A330 was dangerous."
He told a news conference at the agency's headquarters, near Paris that the crash of Flight 447 also does not mean similar plane models are unsafe, adding that he told family members not to worry about flying.
Airbus had made the recommendation for "a number of reasons," he said.
Recovery of bodies, ticket
The two male bodies were recovered Saturday morning about 45 miles south of where Air Flight 447 emitted its last signals — roughly 400 miles northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil's northern coast.
One recovered body was still strapped in the seat with a boarding card for Flight 447, according to NBC News reports.
Brazilian air force spokesman Col. Jorge Amaral said an Air France ticket was also found inside a leather briefcase.
"It was confirmed with Air France that the ticket number corresponds to a passenger on the flight," he said.
Brazilian authorities refused to comment on how the discovery of the bodies may affect the search for crucial black box flight recorders that could tell investigators why the jet crashed.
The investigation is increasingly focused on whether external instruments may have iced over, confusing speed sensors and leading computers to set the plane's speed too fast or slow — a potentially deadly mistake in severe turbulence.
Pitot tubes, protruding from the wing or fuselage of a plane, feed airspeed sensors and are heated to prevent icing. A blocked or malfunctioning Pitot tube could cause an airspeed sensor to work incorrectly and cause the computer controlling the plane to accelerate or decelerate in a potentially dangerous fashion.
Air France has already replaced the Pitots on another Airbus model, the 320, after its pilots reported similar problems with the instrument, according to an Air France air safety report filed by pilots in January and obtained by The Associated Press.
The report followed an incident in which an Air France flight from Tokyo to Paris reported problems with its airspeed indicators similar to those believed to have been encountered by Flight 447. In that case, the Pitot tubes were found to have been blocked by ice.
Did faulty airspeed gauges play a role?
June 6: The agency investigating the disaster said the airspeed instruments weren’t replaced. NBC’s Lester Holt speaks with NBC’s Tom Costello.
"Following similar problems frequently encountered on the A320 fleet, preventative actions have already been decided and applied," the safety report says. The Pitots on all Air France's A320s were retrofitted with new Pitots "less susceptible to these weather conditions."
The same report says Air France decided to increase the inspection frequency for its A330 and A340 jets' Pitot tubes, but that it had been waiting for a recommendation from Airbus before installing new Pitots.
As they try to locate the wreckage, investigators are relying on 24 messages the plane sent automatically during the last minutes of the flight.
The signals show the plane's autopilot was not on, officials said, but it was not clear if the autopilot had been switched off by the pilots or had stopped working because it received conflicting airspeed readings.
The flight disappeared nearly four hours after takeoff, killing all on board. It was Air France's deadliest plane crash and the world's worst commercial air accident since 2001.
The head of France's weather forecasting agency, Alain Ratier, said weather conditions at the time of the flight were not exceptional for the time of the year and region, which is known for violent stormy weather.