Flight Data Recorder Will Hold Key to the Mysteries of MH370

Flight data recorder recovered from the wreckage of Gol Transportes Aéreos Flight 1907 in 2006

Flight data recorder recovered from the wreckage of Gol Transportes Aéreos Flight 1907 in 2006

By Paul Riegler on 21 March 2014
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Once locating the missing plane that operated Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been accomplished, unraveling the mystery unravelling of what happened may only have begun.

If the Australian-led search in the southern Indian Ocean turns up the missing plane, authorities will most likely be able to piece a few pieces of the puzzle together, such as whether there was an explosion or fire in the cabin or whether the aircraft broke up before hitting the water.

Many questions, however, won’t get answered immediately if at all.  The confusion of the first two weeks will long be forgotten but investigators may never be able to piece the entire puzzle together.

At the moment, investigators are in agreement that the Boeing 777-200ER traveled for at least 7.5 hours after it departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, normally a six-hour flight.

The flight – for unknown reasons – changed course roughly one hour into the journey.

On one hand, Malaysian authorities suspect that “deliberate action” from either someone in the cockpit or a passenger on the plane caused the diversion.  Another popular theory, however, is that a catastrophic event such as a fire occurred and caused the flight crew to change course in order to return to Kuala Lumpur.

If the plane or its wreckage is found, some of the mysteries may be cleared up by examining the aircraft’s flight data recorders.

A flight data recorder, frequently referred to in the media as a “black box,” is a device that records ongoing information about what is taking place in the aircraft’s systems including flight parameters.  Another type of recorder is the cockpit voice recorder, which records conversations in the cockpit and radio communications taking place between the pilots and anyone else on the flight deck and air-traffic controllers.

Despite its black-box nickname, flight data recorders are usually bright orange, for high visibility in recovery efforts.  Data contained in the devices has been used to reconstruct countless accidents and what led to them.

Finding them may not be easy, even if wreckage is located.  Although they emit a signal that allows searchers to locate them, the signal lasts roughly 30 days presuming the boxes survived.  This means they will likely stop transmitting – if they are indeed transmitting – around April 8.  Some search efforts take longer than others and experts are warning that, if the wreckage is found in the south Indian Ocean, it will be a particularly difficult recovery mission, given the depths of the waters there.  The flight data recorders from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic in 2009, were recovered two years after the accident.

(Photo: Alessandro Silva/Força Aérea Brasileira)


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