Air France Crash Recorder Found With ‘Rugged’ Data Unit Missing

Air France 2009 Crash Investigators Find Wreckage Atlantic
Salvage teams work to retrieve debris from the wreckage of Air France flight 447 off the coast of Brazil in this handout photo taken on Monday, June 8, 2009. Source: Forca Aerea Brasileira via Bloomberg

Investigators scouring the undersea wreckage of the 2009 Air France plane crash located part of one of the jet’s black-box recorders, which was missing the memory unit that stores the data.

The “extraordinary” finding will help narrow the search to recover the memory module and unravel why the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, said Peter Goelz, a former managing director at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board who is now a consultant at O’Neill & Associates in Washington.

“It’s indestructible, like a bowling ball, able to withstand anything,” Goelz said in an interview. “If they can find it, they should be able to recover some data. And now they know even better where to look.”

France’s BEA accident investigation bureau said yesterday the chassis of the recorder was found “without the crash-survivable memory unit that contains the data.” A photo released by the BEA showed the rectangular-shaped chassis, which is a bright orange color, upside down and partly buried in the ocean’s floor with other debris nearby.

The wreckage was discovered this month off the coast of Brazil in about 3,900 meters (12,800 feet) of water, deeper than the Titanic, where there is no natural light and temperatures are near freezing. All 228 people on board Air France Flight 447 were killed when the Airbus SAS A330 went down during a storm.

Cause for Optimism

“It would be fair to assume that the memory unit is somewhere in the vicinity of the chassis, and it probably was moving at the same rate and rotation when the plane hit the water and the parts were separated,” said Richard Healing, a former NTSB member who is now a consultant in Alexandria, Virgina. “These are pretty darn rugged devices. There is cause for some optimism that it will be found.”

While automated radio transmissions from the June 1, 2009, crash suggest the jet’s airspeed sensors failed as it flew into bad weather, leading to a series of system failures, the BEA has said that the exact causes are unlikely to be established without the black boxes.

The data recorder logs as many as 24 hours of several hundred parameters of flight information including altitude and airspeed, according to Honeywell International Inc., the manufacturer.

The units can withstand 1,500 times the force of gravity and a depth of 20,000 feet of water for 30 days, said Bill Reavis, a spokesman for Morris Township, New Jersey-based Honeywell. The company can’t comment on the condition of the Air France recorder until it is “fully recovered,” Reavis said.

Investigators say there is no certainty the data stored by the memory modules will be readable.

The search is continuing for the missing, cylindrical module as well as the separate cockpit voice recorder and other parts of the twin-engine jet that may be useful to the crash probe, the BEA said in an e-mailed statement.

BEA disclosed the discovery of the wreckage on April 3, after almost two years and four search operations. The latest recovery effort began this week with a robotic submarine. The data recorder was located during its first 12-hour dive, the BEA said yesterday.

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