Bodies from the Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic last week carrying 228 passengers and crew were discovered today. Debris was also found, the Brazilian air force confirmed.
The news of the discovery came as it emerged that the aircraft transmitted 24 error messages, including that the autopilot had been disengaged minutes before it disappeared.
In the Airbus A330's last minutes, automated radio transmissions logged a catalogue of failures, beginning with the disengagement of the autopilot and ending with a drastic drop in the pressure difference between the inside and outside of the plane, consistent with either the breakup of the aircraft or a rapid descent.
The focus of the inquiry is upon the reliability of an air-speed sensor called the Pitot tubes. Air France had ordered that they be upgraded more than a year ago, but the work had apparently not been carried out on the stricken plane.
The three tubes supply information crucial for flying on autopilot. If the tubes become blocked by ice they can record pressure incorrectly and consequently suggest the aircraft is travelling at the wrong speed.
Although the ones fitted on the plane contained an electrical element to help prevent icing, a more sophisticated system was being installed.
The emerging theory is that the jet – en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris – hit a tropical storm that normally would not have presented any navigational difficulties. But heavy icing around the sensors confused the aircraft's systems and pilots about the plane's speed.
Incorrectly functioning Pitot tubes contributed to the 1996 crash of a Boeing 757 into the Atlantic.
Meteorologists have said the Air France jet entered an unusual storm with 100mph updrafts that acted as a vacuum, sucking water up from the ocean. The moist air rushed up to the plane's high altitude, where it froze .
The focus on the Pitot tubes emerged after a leaked Air France memo stated that it had been replacing the instruments on its fleet – work that would be completed in "coming weeks".