Almost a week after a Germanwings jet smashed into the French Alps with the loss of 150 lives, its flight data recorder remains the missing piece in proving that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz sent the plane into its deadly dive.
Evidence that Lubitz deliberately crashed the Airbus A320 operated by the Deutsche Lufthansa subsidiary after locking his captain out of the flight-deck is based on an analysis of sounds from the airliner’s cockpit voice recorder, which was discovered a day after the tragedy. The theory has been backed up by a series of revelations regarding his mental state.
The second device’s housing has also been found, minus its contents, suggesting that an impact speed estimated at about 400 miles an hour was sufficient to rip the so-called black box apart. Even so, critical elements including computer chips that store information across hundreds of parameters are still likely to be recovered, based on past experience, experts say.
“For the sake of good order in the investigation they need to have it,” said Paul Hayes, safety director at London-based consultants Ascend Worldwide. “The investigators must consider everything, and make sure there wasn’t some undetected problem with the aircraft.”
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France’s BEA air-accident investigator hasn’t commented since a press conference to announce the discovery of the audio recorder, when it declined to provide information beyond saying that “voices” could be heard on the device. Daily phone calls and emails to the agency, responsible for leading the technical probe into the event, have since gone unanswered.
Searchers at the site of the crash are also focused on finding body parts that will allow for DNA identification of those killed, partly to aid burials and bring closure for relatives, but also to ensure that all passengers and crew are accounted for and that there was no one else on board.
No details have been provided on how ground teams are going about the search for the flight data recorder on the precipitous mountain slopes, though searches have ultimately proved successful in equally trying conditions in the past.
After a Sukhoi Superjet 100 slammed into steep and heavily forested slopes of Mount Salak, a dormant volcano near Jakarta, in 2012, search teams managed to find both boxes.
When Air France Flight 447 disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Rio De Janeiro to Paris in 2009, an ultimately fruitful undersea search for the recorders took fully two years. While the bid to locate black boxes from Malaysia Air Flight 370, which went missing last year, has so far failed, that’s because the wreckage itself has yet to be located.
Ascend’s Hayes said investigators should be able to extract information from badly damaged data chips, even if they must be pieced together. Readings would then be married with sounds from the voice recorder to provide a second-by-second account of what happened throughout the entire flight.
While the level of detail available from the voice recorder suggests that the current explanation of Germanwings Flight 9525’s demise is unlikely to change, the FDR still needs to be found if all doubts are to be eliminated, Hayes said.
“The worst thing you can do in an investigation is start off by saying you know the answer,” he said. “You still need to do the full investigation.”