Air France Crash Investigators Pull Second Black Box From Sea

Air France Crash Investigators Retrieve Second Black Box
The second memory unit, which records sounds in the cockpit, was located yesterday and pulled up this morning at 4:40 a.m. Paris time. Source: BEA/ECPAD via Bloomberg

Air crash investigators retrieved the second of two black boxes from the Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic in 2009, which may help them unlock the mysteries of the crash after two years.

“They appear to be in a good state,” said Jean-Paul Troadec, head of the BEA, the French air crash investigator that has been probing the accident that killed all 228 people aboard a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. “The first thing is to dry them, prepare them, which needs about a day.” Once the boxes arrive in BEA’s offices, in about 10 days, “the reading of information would be pretty fast,” he said.

A robotic submarine found the memory unit containing flight data and retrieved it on May 1. The second, which records sounds in the cockpit, was located yesterday and pulled up this morning at 4:40 a.m. Paris time. The steel-encased, bright orange boxes are awaiting shipment to BEA’s office, at Le Bourget airfield, near Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris.

The recovery of the boxes may end the hunt for clues to explain the worst accident in Air France’s history. Three previous search missions starting in June 2009 failed to locate the plane’s main wreckage, which was found last month in about 3,900 meters (12,800 feet) of water.

The flight data recorders contain 1,300 parameters, Troadec said, including the plane’s altitude, the position of the rudder, and the functioning of aircraft systems. The second includes pilot conversations and all sounds in the cockpit, including alarms that will have gone off as various systems failed.

Synchronizing Information

“The idea is to bring the two sets of information together,” Troadec said. “We synchronize them,” for a full picture of what happened.

Once flight recorders arrive, they can be plugged into a computer “with something like a giant USB key” and read as documents, Troadec said. The recorders, accompanied by BEA’s chief investigator and police, will be fetched from the ship and escorted by a French navy boat to a port and flown on to BEA’s offices, he said.

With both boxes located, the BEA is still seeking to retrieve “several dozen” airplane parts, all in the form of debris, which would also help investigators piece together what happened to the Air France-operated Airbus A330-200 during a storm about four hours into its Flight 447 on June 1, 2009.

Parallel Investigation

Photographs of the debris have also revealed the existence of passengers’ bodies, many still strapped into their seats in the aircraft cabin. Troadec said the question of whether to retrieve them is being discussed with families of the victims and declined to give further information. The French government itself has said the bodies might be recovered, as autopsies may be required in a criminal investigation of the accident that’s proceeding in parallel with the BEA’s probe.

The search operation is based on a 140-meter ship owned by French phone-equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent SA that’s normally used for laying deep-sea cables. Operating from the ship is underwater engineering company Phoenix International Holdings Inc., which sent one of its two “Remora” robotic submarines, equipped with high-resolution cameras and two manipulator arms.

Airbus has experts on the ship to help BEA identify parts of the plane that could help investigators understand the accident, said Airbus spokesman Jacques Rocca. Airbus will not be involved in reading the data from the recorders, he said.

Only when the flight recorders have been cleaned and dried will investigators be able to tell if they have experienced any corrosion, Troadec said. BEA may call upon Honeywell International Inc., which built the boxes, if there is damage. It has also had contact with several laboratories in France that specialize in data recovery if retrieving the data is more challenging, Troadec said, declining to name them. If there’s damage to the recorders it could take several weeks to obtain information, he said.

The investigation’s ultimate goal, he said, is to come up with safety recommendations to help prevent future accidents of the same type.

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