Nuclear Sub Joins the Hunt for Crashed Air France Plane's Black Box

By Eliza Strickland | June 11, 2009 3:34 pm

black boxA French nuclear submarine has joined the search for the “black box” of Air France Flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic last week with all of its 228 passengers. The “black box” is actually an orange cylinder — about 13 pounds of metal wrapped around a stack of memory chips and designed to withstand the force of being slammed high-speed into a brick wall. Actually a pair of devices — the flight data recorder and a voice and audio recorder — the equipment records virtually everything about how an airplane is working [CNN].  

Aviation experts hope that the black box, if it can be located on the seafloor, will provide an explanation for what went wrong on the flight, which vanished so mysteriously. On board the French sub, the Emeraude, crewmen called “golden ears” were straining to pick up in their headsets the acoustic pings aircraft black boxes are supposed to transmit for 30 days under water. Nothing is better equipped for such faint sounds than an attack submarine with sophisticated sonar gear for detecting vessels deep in the ocean, naval officers said [Times Online].

The nuclear sub will cover about 13 square miles of seafloor each day, but the pings from the black boxes are only audible within about three miles. French armed forces spokesman Christophe Prazuck says the sub’s crew has its work cut out for them. “There are big uncertainties about the accident site, the ocean floor is rugged…. It’s going to be very complicated and we’re going to need a lot of luck” to find the black boxes [AP]. The U.S. Navy has also contributed two sonar devices that will operate from surface ships, and which can pick up readings from as deep as 20,000 feet underwater. The wreckage from the Air France flight is estimated to be about 15,000 feet deep. If the aircraft’s two black boxes are located, a mini-submarine called the Nautile will be sent down to retrieve them. The vessel, which has a crew of three and is about [26 feet] long, is the same one which explored the wreck of the Titanic [BBC News].

Without key information from the Airbus A330’s missing data recorders, investigators have focused on the possibility that external speed monitors — Pitot tubes — iced over and gave false readings to the plane’s computers as it flew into thunderstorms…. The L-shaped metal Pitot tubes jut from the wing or fuselage of a plane, and are usually heated to prevent icing. The pressure of air entering the tubes lets internal sensors measure the speed and angle of flight. A malfunctioning tube could mislead computers controlling the plane to dangerously accelerate or decelerate [AP].

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Image: National Transportation Safety Board

MORE ABOUT: aviation, ocean, sonar
  • Technology Science Fair Projects

    Kids that are working on science fair project ideas for next year can use the technology that is developed for tracking what happens during an airplane crash to come up with a project idea. For example, you can find ways to improve the black box technology, or you can find a new application for black box technology.

  • Herr KOH

    Hier ist meine One Response to “Nuclear Sub Joins the Hunt for Crashed Air France Plane’s Black Box”.

    May I suggest to consider a simple method for retrieving the important Black Box from the ocean more quickly in the near future. The idea is to house the Black Box within a hollow metal box with its Specific Gravity is less than 1. Therefore the instrument will be able to flot on the sea surface instead of letting it sink to the sea bottom. Extra bright Blinking red LEDs are to be fixed on top of the box. So that it can be spoted easily and recover it within a shorter time frame before its batteries go flat.

  • Radwaste

    The idea that sonar operators on subs use their own ears to detect faint signals is completely wrong, and so the statement is a reminder that this article is for general consumption and not dedicated to accuracy. So is the continued noise about pitot tubes. The Airbus does not depend on ram-air differential pressure detection for speed indication, and even though the liner operates at altitude, distant from ground clues, this is akin to claiming that your car crashed because your speedometer failed.

    I think the most elegant explanation is hail impact breaching the cockpit windows. This would result in the immediate death of the flight crew.

  • Phyllo

    95% of the known world use the international system (SI) in their measurements (including all branches of science!). Why you keep using this abstruse imperial thing?

  • Brian

    @Herr KOH,

    Interesting idea. The flaw unfortunately, is that the black box is not loose cargo, and even if it were, there’s no assurance your idea would work anyway.

    The flight data recorders are firmly fastened onto the structure of the plane. In order to float the plane’s physical body would have to be shredded down to a pretty small size. Even major flight disasters often leave huge chunks of the plane behind. The flight recorders are in the rear of the plane and these parts tend to have better survival rates (that’s why the data recorders are there).

    Now, what might work better, is some type of dissolvable bolt system. You’d have a floatable black box as you describe. If the mounting bolts could dissolve in water, the black box would “automatically” release itself from the wreckage, so no matter how big the parts it was attached to were, that wouldn’t matter. The system wouldn’t work outside of a water environment, but that shouldn’t matter either. You’d have to design a bolt that would be physically strong under all conditions except moisture. You’d also have to make sure that things like humidity and condensation, routinely encountered in service, would not inappropriately activate the dissolving action.

    Finally, this design would do nothing to prevent a released black box from getting caught up in enclosed spaces and wreckage tangles. Some problems you just can’t overcome.

  • Herr KOH

    Hi Brian: Thank you for your enlightenment on the blackbox. May be a backup is needed in case the only unit is unable to retrieve or due to other problems. The backup unit can be ejected by a remote control in the cockpit when necessary. A built-in parachute will provide a soft landing which may attract many peoples attention to alert the authorities and also to protect the precious box.

    Who knows one day the important flight datas can be transmitted directly like emails to a recording centre to solve this tricky problem.

  • deej420

    Herr koh, I like your idea and would like to interject a couple of alterations one would be an explosive detachment system which would utilize a series of small explosive charges on all input/output cableing to break the units free and a second charge to detonate millisecs after cable detachment to propel the units free of the plane. I do not beleive it would be that difficult to combine bouyancy with durabilty the units discharge can be set to trip due to any number of factors or a combination thereof i.e. altitude, airspeed, external and internal pressure fluctuations,ect good idea keep me informed

  • redmare1950

    why improve the black box? 50 yr old technology ?? stream data real time ..the plane already did that with maintenance issues….I must not understand…but as it does already stream to ground maintenance as it fly s??? why not eliminate the black box?? or at least improve black box battery..a 30 day battery is certainly not “high tech”
    20 years of my career was in aerospace and the weakest government agency I ever worked with by far was the FAA ..once I was in a meeting on explosive detection..a DOE guy made a pitch that the FAA disputed and the DOE guy lost it and yelled this is high school chemistry that you are not understanding..sad..he was right THEY ARE~WEAK !!

  • Herr KOH

    deej 420, I think it is not advisable and unnecessary to use explosives to detach the electrical cables from the black box. Normally, cables are held together by means of male/female electrical connectors which can be separated by force when the box is ejected by remote control, said from the cockpit.
    Another important part is to maintain the specify gravity to less than one so that the precious data box is able to float above the sea water. It is also important to line its top surface with a high bright blinking LED logo for easy retrieval. Furthermore a built-in parachute will provide a soft landing and take care of

    other safety issues.

  • Robert Muloki

    In this era of IT it is suprising that the blackbox technology has not been improved to march modern technology demands. IF there modern amazing jets such Rapture Jets why not invest some few million dollars and modernise such a very important garget ?

    I would sugest that technology shuold be developed such that flight data is monitored from the the flight base.


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