What the Black Boxes Will Reveal About Downed Malaysia Flight

PHOTO: People inspect the crash site of Air Malaysia flight MH17 near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.
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The location of the black boxes from the downed Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine has still not been confirmed, and experts say that they may not provide helpful information even when they are.

Black boxes are used as a record of what happens on board a plane and they can provide clues if something went wrong on board that led to a crash.

That may not apply in this case, however, because U.S. officials believe the Boeing 777 was shot down with a single surface-to-air missile.

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"It was an external force that caused this," said ABC News aviation and military consultant Steve Ganyard, a former Marine colonel. "For the most part, what will be gleaned from the boxes, to include the cockpit voice recordings, will be important only to the filling in the details of the story."

The specifics of this particular plane -- how many black boxes there were on this Boeing 777 and where they were stored -- remain unknown but digital recorders are typically stored in the tail of the plane.

PHOTO: Black boxes, like the one pictured above from a different plane, are painted bright orange but remain difficult for someone to find amid aircraft wreckage unless they have specialty training.
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Milan Bures/Getty Images
PHOTO: Black boxes, like the one pictured above from a different plane, are painted bright orange but remain difficult for someone to find amid aircraft wreckage unless they have specialty training.

"Typically, black boxes will continue to record, but I highly doubt that here because if they were in the tail, we saw the tail was destroyed early on," Ganyard said. "I don't think there will be more than a couple of seconds of data."

Malaysia Airlines said the plane had "a clean maintenance record" and was last checked on July 11 with no reported concerns.

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"All communication systems on the aircraft were functioning normally," the airline said in a statement after Thursday's crash.

The biggest task for international leaders is to secure the black boxes and other evidence, because the tumultuous political situation in the area of the crash could cause problems for preserving evidence.

PHOTO: A group of people are pictured looking at the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 18, 2014 in Grabovka, Ukraine.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
PHOTO: A group of people are pictured looking at the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 18, 2014 in Grabovka, Ukraine.

Pro-Russia rebel groups initially claimed that they had found the black boxes and may have sent them to aviation experts in Russia but that statement has since been retracted.

Russian news agency Interfax has spoken to the supposed head of the Donetsk People's Republic, the separatist group in control of the area surrounding the crash site, who said the group does not have the boxes.

The black boxes, which are painted bright orange in spite of their name, are likely still amid the wreckage, which spans a reported 10 miles of farmland.

Even though little tangible information is expected to come from the recorded data, the storage of the black boxes is still important because the country that has control of the boxes controls the release of their data.

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