Hunt for EgyptAir Black Boxes Boosted by French Navy Search Ship

  • Laplace leaves Corsica for crash zone in eastern Mediterranean
  • Flight recorders vital to probe may lose power within weeks

The French Navy has sent one of its most advanced survey vessels to lead the search for the submerged wreckage of the EgyptAir jet destroyed over the eastern Mediterranean last week.

The Laplace has left Porto Vecchio in Corsica and will arrive at the likely crash site over the weekend, deploying specialist technology to pick up telltale “pings” from the Airbus Group SE A320’s black-box flight recorders in waters thought to be more than 3,000 meters (9,850 feet) deep.

Regarded as key to determining what brought down Flight MS804 while en route from Paris to Cairo with 66 people on board, the data and voice recorders -- actually colored orange -- are detectable only from within a few miles, and are likely to run out of power in about three weeks.

Discussions are underway on drafting in a second ship equipped with robot-exploration and lifting equipment for the eventual retrieval of the recorders, France’s air-accident investigator said Friday. Two officials from the BEA, involved because Airbus is based in Toulouse, will travel on the Laplace.

Underwater Probes

The ship, named after celebrated French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace, will carry three Detector 6000 underwater listening systems supplied by the Alseamar unit of Paris-based search specialist Alcen, a veteran of air-crash searches that also works with defense and oil-industry clients.

The probes, shaped like torpedoes and dragged beneath the ship, have an “extremely long detection range,” according to Alseamar, being able to detect pings from black boxes 5 kilometers (3 miles) away. Egypt said Thursday the deployment of more specialist gear would “help speed up” the search effort.

Among previous projects, Alseamar worked on the recovery of the black boxes from a Flash Airlines Boeing Co. 737 that crashed into the Red Sea shortly after takeoff from Sharm el-Sheikh in 2004, killing all 148 passengers and crew.

Last year’s loss of an Airbus A321 operated by Russia’s Metrojet, apparently blown up over Sinai by a terrorist bomb, killing 224, posed relatively fewer challenges, with the flight recorders easily found in the desert landscape.

Too Deep

The Egyptian-led investigation team will still need to narrow down the location of the MS804 wreck to bring the French technology to bear. Previous attempts to find the jet using a submarine were hampered by the lack of a well-defined search area and the depth of the water where it seems to have come down.

Experts remain unclear about what destroyed the Airbus. While human remains so far recovered indicate a catastrophic incident such as a bomb, bodies can also be ripped apart when an aircraft disintegrates following a structural failure, or hits the ground or sea at high velocity.

A string of error messages sent automatically minutes before the A320 plunged into the sea indicated that smoke had been detected beneath the cockpit and in a lavatory, and that windows next to the co-pilot’s seat may have been broken, together with unspecified issues with flight computers.

While those readings might be explained in terms of a bomb blast, they could equally have resulted from a fire and associated electrical failure.

Commander Benjamin Chauvet, a spokesman for the French navy, told reporters at a briefing in Paris Thursday that the search zone remains too wide to quickly home in on the black boxes. Waters in the area are also particularly polluted, forcing searchers to sift through unrelated debris, he said.

Signals from the A320’s emergency locater transmitter may have identified an area with a 5-kilometer radius, the state-owned Ahram Gate website said, citing Ayman Al Moqadem, Egypt’s air-accident investigation chief.

An aircraft ELF emits a radio signal -- separate to the flight recorder pings -- detectable by satellite in the event of a crash, though the beacon wouldn’t normally function underwater.

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