Air France Flight 447 Data Recorders Still Eluding Search Efforts

 - May 14, 2010, 7:38 AM
In the search for the AF447 wreckage, BEA investigators have started to explore a new area. On the map, the northern rectangle areas are those defined when preparing search phase 3. The white rectangle on the west side of the circle is the new search area.

Hopes of ever finding the flight data recorders from Air France Flight 447, the Airbus A330 airliner that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, while en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, are once again fading after a failed attempt to refocus the search efforts.

New software and algorithms developed by sonar experts at Thales had helped the French navy to identify a new search area for the wreckage by listening again to previous recordings made by the Emeraude nuclear submarine. Based on this, the navy confirmed that the recorder's signals could still be heard on a July 1, 2009 recording from the first search phase, when the black boxes' pingers were still transmitting. This apparent breakthrough prompted France's Bureau d'Enquete et d'Analyses (BEA) investigators to refocus their search on a 40-square-mile block about 30 nm southwest from the last position known for the A330. But on May 12, the agency confirmed that the latest search had been inconclusive and it is has asked Thales and the navy to reassess the accuracy of the sonar system as it works to a May 25 deadline to abandon the search.

The new data had led the BEA to consider the possibility that the Air France crew had made a U-turn before the crash. The development occurred soon after French authorities decided to further extend the search operations, with Airbus and Air France jointly contributing approximately $2 million to renewed effort. The search team no longer has the use of U.S. Navy equipment but, in addition to the Seabed Worker vessel, it does have two autonomous, torpedo-shaped vehicles carrying sonars. The ship also carries the Triton robot, which could be used to handle parts of any wreckage that might be found on the seabed.

Regardless of the final outcome of the AF447 investigation, the huge effort to find the wreckage, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorders will have made a case for introducing new ways of retrieving data after an accident. In April, a high-level safety conference in Montreal recommended that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) “look into technical enhancements that would improve the ability to locate and recover the units.” These improvements could include requirements for recorders to emit longer-lasting signals, to be more crash-resistant and be better equipped to float.