Black Boxes 'Crucial' in Malaysia Plane Mystery

PHOTO: Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein listens to reporters questions about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 21, 2014.
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Recovery of the black boxes from missing Malaysia Flight 370 is crucial, Malaysia’s minister of defense and transportation Hishammuddin Hussein repeatedly says.

Dozens of planes and ships are searching the south Indian Ocean looking for any sign of the jetliner. Members of France’s accident investigation office have come to share expertise from the two year search for the recorders from the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009.

The boxes, a cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder, both bright orange and each about the size of a coffee maker, are a fraction of the size of a Boeing 777, which itself would be a tiny speck in a 190,000 square mile area of the ocean.

Wreckage of the airplane and the bodies of the people who were flying in it can reveal much about what happened on board the airplane. If found, investigators will examine the condition of the cockpit - including the instrument panels and circuit breakers, wires and the position of control knobs, which includes the transponder that was not transmitting and may have been shut off by someone in the cockpit.

In the passenger cabin, if the oxygen masts are visible, it may mean that the plane underwent a decompression event. Autopsies of the victims could show signs of smoke in the lungs indicating a fire on the airplane. Water in the lungs could mean some passengers were still alive when the plane went into the water.

An accident investigation is a great big puzzle and many pieces help create a whole picture. In the crash of US Airways Flight 427 in 1994, specialists from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board reassembled the Boeing 737 in two dimensions on the floor of a large hanger. Three dimensional mockups of Boeing 747s were created to help investigators understand what caused explosions on board Pan Am 103 (a bomb) and TWA flight 800 (a blast in the fuel tank).

Two weeks after MH370 vanished en route to Beijing, officials are still not certain where or if they will find the aircraft. Should any of it turn up in the ocean, recovery is likely to be difficult. Mike Poole, former head of Canada’s flight recorder laboratory and now an aviation consultant, says the best investigators can hope for is to find the flight data recorder.

“If you find the wing, that’s nice but what are you going to do with that?” he asked. Investigators, he said, have "limited resources and a massive problem. Everything else is a piece of the puzzle. The recorders have the potential by themselves to solve the accident.”

The flight data recorder will detail the last 25 hours of the plane’s activity, from engine performance to the position of flight control surfaces. The cockpit voice recorder tapes the sounds on the flight deck and cycles after two hours. The airplane flew for more than seven and a half hours so the initiating event will have been taped over, though Poole said there is still value in knowing what was going on in the cockpit at the end.

“If there is silence for the last two hours, that tells you something,” he said.

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