Accident investigators have successfully downloaded all of the information captured by the flight-data recorder aboard the Air France jetliner that killed 228 people two years ago when it mysteriously crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, French investigators said Monday.
Led by French air-safety specialists, an international team of government and industry experts over the weekend retrieved data and voice recordings expected to help pinpoint the causes of the June 1, 2009 accident, the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses, or BEA, said.
The BEA said the team collected "all the data" from the flight-data recorder and "the whole recording of the last two hours of the flight" on the cockpit voice recorder. The BEA added that "all of this data will now be subjected to detailed in-depth analysis." The analysis "will take several weeks, after which a further interim report will be written and then published during the summer," the BEA said.
The Airbus A330 jetliner was the first major commercial airliner in decades to disappear mid-flight, and the accident is the most significant crash in years to go unsolved for so long. It has also sparked a French criminal probe in parallel with the safety investigation, which has focused even more attention on the continuing analysis. Due to this intense public scrutiny, French aviation authorities are being particularly cautious in their work and their communications about information from the digital recorders.
The flight-data recorder was in excellent condition and showed almost no corrosion from salt water or other types of damage, according to one person familiar with the work, despite spending nearly two years on the seabed at a depth of 12,000 feet.
The flight-data recorder was designed to capture several hundred different parameters, from engine operations and movements of flight-control surfaces to computer-generated commands and changes in various automated systems. It was found recently by an underwater-robotic-search vehicle, and arrived in France last week.
The Airbus A330's cockpit-voice recorder, according to one person, suffered slightly more damage and required greater efforts by investigators to clean and dry its internal computer chips and memory boards.
Over the next few weeks and months, investigators will fuse the different strands of recorder data to reconstruct a single, precise timeline and virtual replay of the high-profile accident, which until now has confounded experts.
Reading the digital recorders was widely expected to pose unprecedented challenges, because no such devices have been recovered after spending such a long time at such depths. The quick results cap several weeks of fortunate results, starting with the discovery of the wreckage early last month on the fourth attempt to locate it.
Air France Flight 447 disappeared while flying through heavy storms from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009. Other jetliners flying above the same area of the Atlantic Ocean—notorious for large and particularly violent storms—took different routes to avoid the worst of the weather.
The accident's causes remain unknown, though automated maintenance messages sent by onboard computers shortly before the crash revealed problems with the Air France jet's external-air-speed sensors, followed by a cascade of other malfunctioning systems and loss of control by the pilots.
Investigation of the Air France crash has been closely watched by safety experts around the world partly because it was the first time an advanced jetliner with a strong safety record—and flown by a major Western carrier—dropped out of the sky. The plane went into a fatal dive without the cockpit crew managing to broadcast any kind of emergency message or request for help.
The recorders may help answer two nagging questions: Did the cockpit crew attempt to turn the plane around to escape the brunt of the storm, and did the pilots manage to regain control shortly before impact and struggle to pull out of the dive?
The crash also has sparked broad questions about how pilots interact with automated flight controls, sophisticated systems increasingly found in latest-generation aircraft.
Efforts to download the flight-data recorder were captured on video, according to the BEA, and the work was observed by government air-crash investigators from the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Brazil, as well as two French legal officials. Families of the victims also are slated to be informed about how much information ends up coming from the black boxes.