Long Odds Search for Black Boxes


They aren't "black". FDR - from NTSB

Now that searchers have found some floating remnants of Air France 447 in the Atlantic 430 miles (700 kilometers) north of the Fernando de Noronha islands, the hard work of trying to locate the Airbus’ “black boxes” – the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder – can begin. This is actually much worse than the proverbial needle in the haystack, because in that case, the assumption is the needle can be found after expending a lot of time and energy. These boxes might very well be truly lost to the abyss.

But of course they still must try to find them as well as any wreckage of the Airbus A-330.

CVR - from NTSB

CVR - from NTSB

To that end, a French research ship with a submersible capable of diving to a depth of 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) is steaming to the area.  The French transport Ministry says the ship carries equipment “able to explore more than 97% of the ocean bed area, specifically in the search area.” I some spots,  Atlantic is more than 20,000 feet deep in the area where searchers found the floating debris.

The submersible will be listening for the distinctive “pinging” noise that these boxes are designed to emit once they are submerged in water. They are supposed to “ping” for thirty days in water as deep as 20,000 feet. In ideal circumstances, the pings can be heard no farther than 5,000 feet away  – so it is essential to send some “ears” deep beneath the sea in order to find the boxes. These sonar devices can be towed by ships or ply the deep on their own power.

The technique has paid off in the past. In 2007, the USNS Mary Sears used a towed underwater sonar to to locate the black boxes that were on board an Indonesian airliner that crashed on a domestic flight on January 1, 2007. The boxes for Adam Air Flight 574 – a Boeing 737 – were found at depths greater than 6,000 feet (1,800 meters).

But where, precisely should they search for AF447? Simply looking where the floating debris was found is not wise – as ocean currents and wind have likely moved those items away from the wreckage that lies beneath.

Remember, this aircraft was beyond radar coverage at the time it crashed, so finding a place to begin a search requires a little bit of sleuthing. That is precisely what meteorologist and blogger Tim Vasquez has done brilliantly here. If he is right, the wreckage would lie somewhere between 10,000 and 13,000 feet beneath the surface. Maybe that is within reach. Maybe.

af447-weatherBeing a weather guy, Vasquez has taken his position hunch and mashed it up with the meteorological data at that time/place.  The results will make your blood run cold. AF447 flew into the maw of an extremely powerful line of embedded thunderstorms that rose to at least 51,000 feet.

“The aircraft was certainly within the bulk of an extensive cumulonimbus cloud field for a significant amount of time,” writes Vasquez.  “(The) storms could indeed have been a contributing factor to the crash.”

Remember, as I said in my previous post on this, it is seldom one single cause that brings down a modern airliner. But you have to wonder why the crew did not deviate from this extremely hazardous course.


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22 Responses to “Long Odds Search for Black Boxes”

  1. patimc Says:

    Thank you Miles, this was the issue I was intersted to read about. Daunting, disturbing and discouraging as this information may be, it is most appreciated nonetheless. Look forward to your further analysis.

  2. mrhelio Says:

    A long time Air France pilot claims that it was the work of a terrorist plot, and all eyes are on this fragment of the bigger picture. Earlier there was a bomb threat for an Air France jet in Buenos Aires. We hope that this is not the case. If they ever find the “black boxes” it will be a miracle and for the sake of the families who grieve their lost loved ones. The Air France pilot has said that in his ten years of flying the Airbus has never encountered such a instance. We hope some closure can become reality soon..

  3. fergiej Says:

    Hello, Miles. Glad to find you posting here! I’ve been a fan of yours for quite a while. I ran across an article in Time Magazine about something that is very interesting. There have been 4 instances in the past 3 years involving A330’s air data inertial reference units (ADIRUs)which have caused the jets to quickly go into a steep dive. Here is the link:

    I really hope they find the FDR’s and can determine the cause of this tragic crash.

  4. caseydress Says:

    Interesting article….I’m wondering why your idea about the black box transmitting continuously isn’t in effect. I hope this mystery is solved, and I hate the unknowns because we all fly so much.

  5. rcp727 Says:

    Hello Miles,

    Great article, again.

    I came across a link (below) you may have seen, but is quite informative with specific data.


    Dick Page

  6. filippomaria Says:

    Wao! This is frightening! Thank you for posting Vasquez analysis. I am still shaking in disbelief!
    I don’t understand why the pilot did not divert. Could he have seen the clouds on his radar? Or at least some tell tale signs?
    I can only immagine the screams in that airplane as it went through what must have been umbelievably violent turbulences…I hope they have found peace now.

  7. markeisenman Says:

    A few weeks ago (before the Air France crash) I sent this to a CBC science show (Quirks and Quarks).

    An airplane crashes into the ocean. Weeks or month go by when after
    great expense the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorder
    are found, or not! Or they’re found but they are damaged.

    Considering the fact that airlines have
    internet access on some planes (THE AIRBUS A330-200 being one) for passengers, (definitely a frill) why
    not have the Flight Data, and Voice Data streamed to a secure server.
    This data would be accessible immediately after the loss of a plane,
    because it’s been transmitted from the plane, in real time!

    The FLR and VDR would then be a BACKUP for this data.

    It probably would not cost too much on planes that are already going to have internet access for passengers.
    After all, live telemetry was coming from moon in 1969, with a lot less bandwidth/bitrate I bet…
    we have the technology to do this.

    A good question for FAA, Airbus, NTSB don’t you think?

    Internet on Airplanes?
    From an Airbus press release:

    Also, the Airbus long-range aircraft for Livingston Aviation Group SpA will feature the latest on-board entertainment systems (Matsushita 2000E), including SMS messaging and Internet access.

  8. Brian D. Wendt Says:

    Mr. O’Brien: I just wanted to say thanks for being one of the last reliable high-profile science/space/aviation journalists. As a working pilot, I know I can always count on your reportage to be free of sensationalism, conspiracy and psuedoscience. You always do your homework, and the result is honest, thorough coverage of a field that’s largely misunderstood. Keep it up!

  9. alpkirk Says:

    I am so glad we can turn to your detailed, educated coverage of these stories, Miles. This type of science / technology reporting is no longer available from the major networks.

    I do still want to meet with you for a launch – please let me know the best way to contact you offline.

    Kirk Garreans
    Orlando, FL

  10. willcushman Says:

    I wonder if the US Navy’s SOSUS or SURTASS underwater listening systems cold help locate the recorders? Or perhaps an attack submarine could be sent into the area to use its passive listening capabilities? Towed passive sonar arrays will be needed, maybe the US Navy’s surface assets can help.

  11. lordfalmouth Says:

    Fantastic links to the meteorologist. I have a flight on QF from Sydney to Tokyo. And it is through the night and over the equator. A330-300. What happens if the pilot is faced with a hugely wide band of cloud? If he could see it. How do you go round that lot in the dark? A KLM pilot went 300kms diversion to get around a huge storm. But in the darK? How far can a pilot detour?

  12. Mark Drapeau Says:

    As a scientist who’s seen you on TV (and who’s writing for True/Slant), it’s great to have you on board! (See you around the city)

  13. jetmang Says:

    Just heard your blog on 447 where you talked about a possible pitot tube problem. I thought most modern aircraft have GPS equipment on the and wonder why the loss of Pitot tube pressure and resulting loss of air speed indicator the pilot could not just use his GPS for Air speed. I travel by air frequently and carry my Garmin Etrex with me and it furnishes me with both airspeed , direction and altitude information at all times.


  14. pixelsmart Says:


    Please add links to your graphics so we can view the full size originals.

    Several of your current graphics are totally unreadable.

    ( and best of luck in this new venture )

  15. John Knope Says:

    Makes me wonder, could these one day be designed to float?

  16. sactom Says:

    Miles, I just saw a picture of the tail section which was found floating in the ocean. It looks big enough to be the WHOLE tail! Could this be a repeat of the airbus crash in NYC several years ago? That crash was blamed on the pilot using too much rudder control which caused the tail to separate from the fuselage. As I recall, the rudder was made of composite materials & was affixed to the fuselage by a small number of bolts. Does the AB330 also have a composite tail? My guess is it does since it was found floating on the surface.


    • Miles O'Brien Says:

      The key question is this: How close was the rudder/vertical stabilizer to the other wreckage? If it was close to the tail section of the fuselage, then it probably off when it hit the water. If it was far away, you could be right about the parallel to AA 587.

  17. sactom Says:

    Miles, Here is the photo of the tail I was referring to in my earlier post. This appears to be the whole tail assembly judging from its size & the paint job.


    A question: Wouldn’t it be a good idea to place the flight recorder inside the composite tail/vertical stabilizer? In this case it would have floated to the surface for easy recovery.


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