Air France Investigators Need Flight Data Recorders

It's been nearly 30 days since an Air France jet, flying from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. The information gathered so far suggests the airplane may have broken up in flight. Investigators remain focused on recovering the flight data and cockpit voice recorders. Matt Wald covers aviation for The New York Times, and he discusses the investigation with David Greene.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

A passenger plane from Yemen with more than 150 people on board went down this morning off the southeastern coast of Africa. This is the second crash of an Airbus jet in a month. More than 200 people died when an Air France Airbus crashed into the Atlantic Ocean a month ago on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The French agency looking into that crash is expected to issue a report this week.

Matt Wald covers aviation for The New York Times and he's been following the Air France investigation, and he joins us now.

Good morning, Matt.

Mr. MATT WALD (The New York Times): Good morning.

GREENE: So this 30-day mark that we've hit today, how significant is that in the search for these black boxes, and what are investigators really hoping they'll discover if they do finally find them?

Mr. WALD: The black boxes have pingers attached. These literally send out a sound and they're powered by batteries. The batteries have to be good for first 30 days, after that they start to fade. There is one interesting case in the Indian Ocean in very deep water, where the South Africans found the cockpit voice recorder after 14 months.

GREENE: You've been covering aviation for a long time, so take us through a couple other flights that stand out that they might have learned some interesting things from these black boxes.

Mr. WALD: Well, to stick with the crashes at sea, there was a Dominican chartered airplane that crashed right after takeoff from the Dominican Republic. And the black box showed that there was a problem with speed sensors on the airplane. And your speed through the air is crucial; you go too fast or too slow and you're dead. And it turned out that the plane had sat on the ground for 25 days, and part of the speed-sensing equipment had mud in it, probably from a mud wasp or colony of mud wasps that had built its nest there.

There was a crash just a few weeks after that of a Peruvian 757. And in that case a ground crew had polished the exterior of the airplane. And to protect part of the speed sensing system, they covered it with masking tape and failed to remove the masking tape.

GREENE: What clues do we have so far in the absence of the black boxes? Have we learned anything important yet?

Mr. WALD: We have tantalizing stuff. The airplane has a robotic system for sending error messages essentially back to the maintenance base. In this case it sent one message that said one of the lavatories was broken. And then it starts with this cascade of messages, one of which is that the speed indicating system has a problem. And then the auto pilot trips off and the computer, not to anthropomorphize too much, throws up its hands and says, I can't handle this.

GREENE: And what about human error? I mean are there going to be questions about the training for pilots to quickly take over once-automated systems fail?

Mr. WALD: That happens after every crash, whether it was because of automated systems or something else. One of the things the investigators look at is - how were the crews trained for this? Did they do this in a simulator? Was the simulator training accurate? If you did the things you were trained to do, would it come out right?

There was a crash of an Airbus A300 in New York in November of '01, in which the investigators focused on the training and said that the simulator gave unrealistic results, and the training my have encouraged the crew to use the rudder in a way that wasn't appropriate and that contributed to the crash.

GREENE: Let me ask you about these black boxes again. Let's assume we don't find them. Will investigators - is there a chance they can piece this all together, or they'll never really be able to rule out terrorism, lightning and other causes?

Mr. WALD: If you fail to find the boxes, there's something of a cloud hanging over the airplane, the operator. And it's conceivable that they will analyze and reanalyze the error messages and come up with some theory or some improvements. But our degree of confidence that the theory was right and the improvements were correct is not great.

GREENE: We've been talking to Matt Wald, who covers aviation for The New York Times.

Matt, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. WALD: Thank you, pleasure to be here.

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