Two of the three pilots on an Air France jumbo were sleeping minutes before it plunged into the sea off Brazil, it was revealed yesterday.

Analysis of cockpit conversations showed that as the plane stalled in a tropical storm the three men struggled to regain control, until one shouted: "F***, we're dead!" just before the Airbus 330 crashed with the loss of all 228 on board.

Horrific details of the last moments of Flight 447, in May 2009, have emerged in a disturbing new investigation into the disaster. Published in the October edition of Vanity Fair magazine, it raises terrifying questions about the "culture'' of Air France pilots sleeping while on duty.

Excerpts from conversations reveal the most junior pilot, Pierre-Cedric Bonin, 32, was at the controls while captain Marc Dubois, 58, was sleeping off a night in Rio with his girlfriend, an off-duty hostess who was also on the flight, alongside pilot David Robert, 37.

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As the Paris-bound plane flew into the inter-tropical convergence zone - an area near the Equator known for dangerous turbulence and thunderstorms - its airspeed sensors malfunctioned and it began to stall. Chief investigator Alain Bouillard said: "With most of the weather still lying ahead and an anxious junior pilot at the controls, Dubois decided it was time to get some sleep.

"If the captain had stayed in position through the inter-tropical convergence zone it would have delayed his sleep by no more than 15 minutes, and because of his experience maybe the story would have ended differently.

"But I do not believe it was fatigue that caused him to leave. It was more like customary behaviour, part of the piloting culture within Air France. And his leaving was not against the rules."

Captain Dubois finally entered the cockpit one minute and 38 seconds after the airspeed sensors failed, but by that time panic was setting in and instead of lowering the plane's nose to deal with the stall, the pilots raised it. Soon afterwards, either Robert or Bonin are heard to say, "F***, we're dead" before the plane crashes into the Atlantic.

It took two years to retrieve bodies from the bottom of the sea, along with the flight's voice recorder.

Air France denied its pilots were incompetent, but has since improved training, concentrating on how to fly a plane when there is a stall. Both Air France and Airbus are facing manslaughter charges.

- Daily Mail