French salvage ship heading for air crash zone

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A French salvage ship was heading into the south Atlantic Friday to start pulling up from the ocean floor the bodies of passengers and wreckage from an Air France plane that crashed in 2009.

An officer on the Ile de Sein said the ship would sail from Dakar, where it had arrived earlier Friday, after taking on extra crew members for the operation.

It is hoped to recover the black box flight recorders from the Airbus A330 and determine why it plunged into the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in June 2009 with the loss of 228 lives.

Alan Bouillard, the official of France's Bureau of Investigation and Analysis (BEA) in charge of the probe, said the team faced "a real challenge."

"We will be working at a depth of 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) which complicates the recovery task enormously," he said.

If the flight recorders are found, there was also the problem of analysing the data they contained, particularly if they are damaged, Bouillard said.

The Ile de Sein, equipped with an underwater robot and a massive crane to bring up parts of the plane weighing several tonnes, such as the engines, is due to arrive over the wreck on Monday.

"We think we can begin the operation from Tuesday," BEA director Jean-Paul Troadec said.

The main wreckage of Flight 447 was found three weeks ago on the fourth and final attempt.

French Transport Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said some bodies had been seen in the remains of the cabin, photographed by robot submarines.

Previous searches had recovered a limited amount of wreckage and about 50 bodies.

"The fact that the debris is concentrated in a relatively small area favours the hypothesis that the plane did not break up in flight. The plane was intact when it hit the sea," a source close to the investigation said earlier.

The official cause remains undetermined, but the crash has been partly blamed on malfunctioning speed sensors used by Airbus, with Air France accused of not responding quickly enough to reports that they might be faulty.

"Studying the breaks, how the pieces are bent, will show whether the plane hit the water flat, on its side, etc. It will perhaps give some indication of the speed of the impact," the source said.

But investigators and Airbus remain cautious, stressing that without the black boxes the riddle of the plane's last moments may never be solved.

Air France and Airbus -- which are being probed for alleged manslaughter in connection with the crash, the deadliest in the carrier's history -- are paying the estimated $12.7 million (nine million euro) cost of the search.

© 2011 AFP

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