Cable Laying Ship ‘Ile de Sein’ Recovers Air France Flight 447 Voice Recorder

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May 3, 2011

© Stéphane Saissi

PARIS—French air-crash investigators said they found and retrieved the cockpit voice recorder from an Air France jetliner that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean almost two years ago, less than two days after searchers found the plane’s flight data recorder.

The two “black boxes” will now be shipped to Paris for analysis, which officials said should begin in about ten days. Industry officials and families of the 228 people onboard the Airbus A330 jetliner, who were all killed, hope soon to learn why the plane plunged from the sky on June 1, 2009.

Air France Flight 447 was flying through heavy thunderstorms en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it experienced some malfunctions with airspeed sensors, according to automated maintenance data that was transmitted by the plane soon before it vanished. But the problems identified so far weren’t serious enough to cause a crash, safety experts have said.

Air-safety specialists are hopeful that the recorders will yield data to fill out investigators’ understanding, even though the devices spent months in salty water under enormous pressure.

“We are excited by the news and we hope that the data is still readable,” Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders said in a statement. “Only this will contribute to understanding the events that led to the accident,” he said, adding: “We are pleased that over the last two years we have pushed to continue the investigation and the search, no matter what the cost and efforts.” Airbus is a unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co.

Air France-KLM SA Chief Executive Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, meanwhile, called the recovery of the second recorder “another decisive step forward in the inquiry.” Mr. Gourgeon said in a statement that he hoped that the data from the recorders “may be used and provide answers to questions that relatives of the victims, Air France and the entire airline industry have been asking for nearly two years about why this tragic accident occurred.”

Both recorders are now onboard the salvage ship Ile de Sein, from which a Remora 6000 robotic undersea vehicle has been operated to locate and retrieve them. The two orange cylinders were locked in clear plastic boxes filled with ocean water to prevent tampering and to maintain their present condition.

France’s Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses, the crash investigation office, has asked the French Navy to send a boat to take the recorders to French Guyana. From there, the units will be shipped by air to BEA headquarters outside Paris. Experts from Honeywell International Inc., which produced the recorders, will help with their analysis.

The BEA is taking special precautions to ensure no questions are raised about the recorders’ security, in part because of ongoing criminal probes of the crash. Both Air France and Airbus have been cited in lawsuits accusing them of manslaughter for not having responded quickly enough to reports that the air speed probes were giving inaccurate readings.

The recorders will be accompanied in their journey by the BEA’s investigator-in-charge, an officer of the French judicial police and an investigator from Brazil’s national crash investigator.

Recovery of the voice recorder so soon after the data recorder was retrieved marks a sharp reversal in fortune for the long-running search. Three attempts to locate the plane’s wreckage on the ocean floor proved fruitless.

The fourth attempt, launched in late March, followed intensive work to model the plane’s likely point of impact and ocean flows that might have carried the wreckage. The fourth attempt, conducted by specialists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., also employed three of the most sophisticated sea scanners in the world, Remus robotic submarines produced by Hydroid Inc. of Pocasset, Mass.

On April 3, the search team located the plane’s engines and landing gear using advanced sonar on the Remus. On April 26, the Ile de Sein arrived to begin search and retrieval work with the Remora, which is produced by Phoenix International Holdings Inc. of Largo, Maryland.

One day later, searchers found the chassis in which the recorders are housed, but without the devices. Four days later, the data recorder was located and retrieved.

(c) 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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