After a brief time under rebel control, rumors of a trip to Moscow and a long flight from Ukraine, the black boxes that could provide essential insight into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 have arrived in the United Kingdom.
Investigators from the U.K.’s Air Accident Investigation Branch will examine the boxes’ contents, but it’s unclear how much, if any, effect the analysis will have on what’s known about the crash that killed 298 people last Thursday.
AAIB professionals are widely considered to be the world’s preeminent air crash examiners. From their small headquarters outside Farnborough Airport in Hampshire, England, the investigators will download data from MH17’s cockpit voice recorder, or CVR, and flight data recorder, or FDR, a process that is expected to take less than a day.
“They’re confident that, depending on the level of damage, they will be able to retrieve the information within 24 hours and they’ll feed it back into the investigation,” a spokesman for the British Department of Transport told the Guardian. “We’re not able to go into detail about anything else.”
U.S. intelligence reports made public Tuesday asserted that the Boeing 777 was shot down with a Soviet-developed SA-11 Buk missile fired by pro-Russian separatists. Images taken at the crash site support this hypothesis, research analyst Justin Bronk told NBC, with the Buk missile designed not to quite hit the plane, but to explode at up to 100 feet away, shattering the aircraft in midair and creating “instant decompression” inside the cabin.
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“Current evidence of the damage appears to suggest that [the missile] exploded slightly ahead of and beneath the port wing, near the cockpit,” said Bronk, who is based at the military sciences program at London’s Royal United Services Institution. “That would have caused catastrophic damage with shrapnel.”
Initial concern that the separatist groups believed to be responsible for the downing of MH17 had tampered with the black boxes appears to have been for naught, with the Dutch Safety Board telling reporters the CVR memory and data had been preserved, albeit still in need of analysis. Worries over the current situation are reminiscent of the decade-long dispute over black box data preservation when another passenger plane shot was shot down during the Cold War.
In 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down while flying over the Sea of Japan by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor missile, killing all 269 people aboard including Rep. Lawrence McDonald, D-Ga. The U.S. maintained for years that the Soviet Union obstructed rescue efforts and the investigation into the flight’s demise. Flight 007’s black boxes were in the Soviets' possession for nine years after the crash, with officials denying throughout that period that they had the boxes, until they were finally turned over to the United Nations after the fall of the U.S.S.R.
The tapes still have yet to be conclusively analyzed, although the U.S.S.R., which initially denied shooting down the plane at all, is believed to have doctored the tapes because the CVR and FDR recordings stop at exactly the same second, a rarity in aviation investigations. Both components are also known to have been working after the missile detonated, and there is no evidence that the electrical system was impaired, although both recorders mysteriously “stopped” just moments before missile impact.
If a Buk missile was indeed responsible for the MH17 crash, the destruction would have been swift and complete. Flight MH17 would have begun disintegration in mid-air, with even passengers located far to the rear of the plane falling unconscious within seconds of the explosion. This would also explain why there was no mayday call.
Aviation expert Robert Hager told NBC that the black box isn’t necessarily irrelevant in this case, although a recording on the cockpit voice recorder might be investigators’ best hope for finding new insight.
“If the pilots actually saw this coming at them, I doubt it, but [the CVR would reflect that],” he said. “Otherwise I think both recorders just show a catastrophic event. They’ll tell you where it was and at what time but it doesn’t indicate what kind of catastrophic event. Then the recorders just quit.”