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Inside the box that might hold the answers to the missing jet

BY Jenny Marder  March 26, 2014 at 4:22 PM EDT
The flight data recorder, or black box of a crashed Russian passenger jet is displayed during a press conference in Jakarta on May 31, 2012. Indonesian searchers  found the second 'black box' of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 three weeks after slammed into the 7,200-foot (2,200-metre) Mount Salak in western Java killing all 45 people on board. Photo by Jefri Tarigan/AFP/Getty Images.

The flight data recorder, or black box of a crashed Russian passenger jet is displayed during a press conference in Jakarta on May 31, 2012. Indonesian searchers found this second black box three weeks after the Sukhoi Superjet 100 slammed into Mount Salak in western Java killing all 45 people on board. Photo by Jefri Tarigan/AFP/Getty Images.

Many of the answers to what caused Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to veer off its flight path and vanish are contained in an unpressurized compartment in the tail of the missing airplane.

With the search still ongoing, we wanted to know more about the jet’s “black box,” which is actually two black boxes, and which isn’t actually black, but orange.

Black boxes are high-tech, heavy duty, digital data recorders. They are made of steel and titanium. And they are fire resistant, waterproof, and shock protected, built to crash into a mountain at 500 miles per hour — and survive.

“Think of it as a virtually indestructible hard drive for your computer,” said Capt. Dave Funk, a retired Northwest Airlines captain and an associate with Laird and Associates, a firm that specializes in aviation security. “It’s amazing how much information they can cram into these things. It’s as if you were to load your cell phone into an artillery shell and shoot it 20 miles away, and it’s still usable.”

The black box, painted orange for visibility, comes in two versions. One records 30 days worth of highly detailed flight information, captured on hundreds of channels. This includes airspeed, altitude, hydraulic pressure, outside air temperature and the status of what does and doesn’t work on the plane.

Then there’s the flight recorder, which picks up everything transmitted and received through the radio, along with sounds from the cockpit and flight deck from the last two hours of the flight. The belief, Funk said, is that everything you need to know is contained in those last two hours.

Information gleaned from these recordings can be invaluable.

In 1987, a South African Airways 747 jet aircraft crashed into the Indian Ocean, killing all 159 people on board. The cockpit voice recorder, recovered two years later, revealed the popping of circuit breakers, signs of an onboard fire.

In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland en route from London to New York. That cockpit recorder picked up sound waves that allowed investigators to determine the precise location of the bomb.

“It can have hundreds of parameters, everything from airspeed to outside air temperature — hundreds of channels constantly recording data,” said Alan Diehl, author of “Air Safety Investigators: Using Science to Save Lives — One Crash at a Time.”

“The bad news is, if its in a big body of water like Indian Ocean, you’ve got a big problem trying to find it.”

That’s the trick. You’ve got to find it, and in the world’s third largest ocean, that’s no easy task.

Black boxes that stream data have been proposed as a solution, but thousands of airborne aircraft streaming data could overwhelm existing satellite channels, Diehl said. Another possible option would be a feature that allows a pilot to trigger a data dump during an emergency situation.

Attached to the Malaysian Airlines black box is an acoustic device called a pinger that emits sound waves. But it’s only guaranteed to reach a couple miles. As Pinger Locator Systems, capable of detecting the device from the air to a depth of 20,000 feet, are being dispatched to locate the black box, the pinger’s 30-day battery is quickly draining.

In a recent interview on the PBS NewsHour Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal told Gwen Ifill that it’s “certainly a possibility” that the plane and its black box will never be found.

“Many experts — and experts who know about searches — say the area is too vast and the pieces may be so small and the depth of the water may be so significant that, in fact, we may never find the wreckage.”

Still, Funk is optimistic.

“We’re going to find it,” he says of the black box. “There’s no doubt in my mind. It’s still attached to the tail section of the airplane.”