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Why Do Airlines Keep ‘Black Box’ Flight Data Trapped on Planes?

The flight data recorder from the 2009 Air France flight that went down in the mid-Atlantic, found in 2011
The flight data recorder from the 2009 Air France flight that went down in the mid-Atlantic, found in 2011Photograph by Johann Peschel/AP Photo

To solve the mystery of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, investigators need the airplane’s data and voice recorders. In an airplane tragedy, however, the information stored in the so-called black box inevitably ends up inside a wreck. This seems like a terrible place to keep the clue you need to find most.

As investigators scour the Gulf of Thailand and waters as far north as Hong Kong for debris from the Boeing 777-200 that vanished en route to Beijing on Saturday, there’s almost no indication yet of what doomed the flight and the 239 passengers on board. So far, at least, no wreckage or jet fuel has been found. Without recovering the black box, there’s little way to know what caused a plane cruising at 35,000 feet to disappear from radar.