AF447: Search for Black Boxes May Be Closing In

The search for the flight recorders of the Air France Airbus A330 that crashed off the coast of Brazil last June -- killing all 228 people onboard -- may take a new turn today.

After several months of a search operation that took investigators over a 770-square mile zone in the Atlantic Ocean, a new analysis of data recorded by a French nuclear submarine last July has allowed sonar experts to isolate what they believe are emitted signals from the flight recorders, or black boxes. The signals have helped them narrow the area of the black boxes to about 2 square miles.

"Very recently, sonar experts at Thales, the French defense contractor, developed a new software. They listened again to a certain number of recordings and determined that they probably found signals corresponding to the pings of the flights recorders," Gen. Christian Baptiste, a deputy spokesman for the French Defense Ministry, said during a press conference today in Paris.

The recordings were carried out by the French nuclear submarine Emeraude between June 10 and July 10, 2009, during the first phase of the search operation.

The black boxes emit signals for 30 days after an accident.

"Does this mean we will find the black boxes? We are far from certainty," Baptiste said today at the Defense Ministry.

Not underestimating the difficulty of finding the black boxes, Baptiste said, "The flight recorders are no longer transmitting a signal. Moreover, the [narrowed] area corresponds to about the surface of the city of Paris in which one would need to find parts the size of a shoe box in an seabed relief that looks like the Andes Mountains. There is thus no certainty that the black boxes will be found."

He said the latest development would allow the agency in charge of the probe (Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses, or BEA), to "reorient its search for the black boxes."

Currently, the BEA continues its search operation in the Atlantic Ocean with the Seabed Worker, a Norwegian ship, and two Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, along with a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV.

This latest phase of the probe, which will cost $10 million, was supposed to end at the end of April. But BEA recently announced it would continue the investigation through May 25, using fewer resources.

The U.S. Navy's ROVs and sonar, installed onboard the Anne Candies, had helped with the search but are now being mobilized for a military operation. Air France and EADS, the European parent company of Airbus, are paying close to $2 million each to finance the remainder of the search.

Without the black boxes, investigators can't determine the cause of the crash. A series of automatic messages emitted by the plane indicated faults in the speed-measuring equipment, or the pitot tubes, as the plane crossed a zone of heavy turbulence. Investigators have insisted, though, they don't have enough information to say how the plane went down.

"If the flight recorders are found, things are certainly going to look up. We will be able to retrieve the data of the flight recorders and thus clear things up, and most likely determine what led to the crash," Gerard Feldzer, a retired Air France pilot and director of Le Bourget Airport's Air and Space Museum, told ABC News.

Air France said in a statement that it had been informed of the new area calculation, and that although the information still needed to be verified, it is "excellent news" in the search to determine what happened. The calculation will be used to "orient the new search effort that has just begun," Air France said.

So far, only aircraft debris, including the plane's tail, and about 50 bodies, have been recovered.