AirAsia Jet’s Black Box Found by Divers in Plane Wreckage

Search teams began retrieving the black boxes from the wreckage of the AirAsia Bhd. jetliner, which will help investigators unlock how QZ8501 plunged into the Java Sea with 162 people on board.

The flight-data recorder has been lifted from the seabed, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency head F.H. Bambang Sulistyo told reporters in Jakarta today. The data recorder holds information such as the plane’s altitude and speed. The cockpit-voice recorder, which captures audio conversations between the ground and the pilots, has also been found on the seabed, Indonesian news website Detik today cited Mardjono Siswosuwarno, head of the crash investigation at the National Transportation Safety Committee, as saying.

Decoding information stored in the recorders and piecing together debris will help the investigators understand what factors led to the first fatal crash for Malaysia-based AirAsia. The Airbus Group NV single-aisle jet went off radar Dec. 28 while on a commercial flight to Singapore from Surabaya, Indonesia, after the pilot had requested changing course amid clouds in his path.

“The black box records critical aircraft flight parameters,” said Mark D. Martin, chief executive officer of Dubai-based Martin Consulting LLC. “This will be vital in understanding what happened during the last crucial moments of the flight.”

Changing Course

Divers identified the location of the black box and had marked the area for retrieval, Transport Ministry spokesman J.A. Barata said yesterday. The black box was stuck in the debris of the plane at a depth of 30-32 meters and the search team was trying to use balloons to lift the aircraft debris, the ministry said in a statement yesterday.

The cockpit-voice recorder and flight-data recorder are together known as the black box. The development should help answer why the A320 plane crashed en route to Singapore. Investigators use information from black boxes to reconstruct the final moments before a crash and sometimes come up with recommendations to prevent other disasters.

Flying at 32,000 feet, the plane’s pilot had asked to rise to a higher altitude, citing clouds, officials have said. By the time air traffic controllers responded some two minutes later there was no reply from the plane. There were storms along the plane’s flight path, yet other planes managed to fly through the same area at the same time without incident.

Pinger Locators

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Committee are on board the ship Jadayat that found the black box, the transport ministry said in the statement. The black box will be taken to Jakarta for reading, Detik said, citing Mardjono. Mardjono did not respond to a phone call from Bloomberg News seeking comment.

Search teams looking for the black box deployed side-scan sonar, pinger locators and divers after finding the tail on Jan. 7. The black boxes, which are encased in bright orange to facilitate their retrieval, are waterproof, fortified and designed to emit an electronic signal underwater for 30 days to help searchers find them.

Safety advocates have been pushing for years to improve black boxes by enabling them to float and stream data to ground stations in real time. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board held a forum in October on the subject, and “is currently exploring what the next steps might be,” including possible safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.

Improving Safety

A spate of crashes in the past decade prompted Indonesia in 2008 to amend laws and boost plane-safety checks after the European Union imposed a ban on its carriers from flying to Europe. The ban has been partially lifted since then.

The AirAsia flight took off on a Sunday, without a transport ministry permit to fly that day. The government has since suspended the license of AirAsia for that route, found other airlines in breach of permits, and removed officials involved from the ministry, state air-navigation operator AirNav Indonesia and state airport company PT Angkasa Pura 1.

AirAsia Indonesia Chief Executive Officer Sunu Widyatmoko confirmed the suspension of the route license and has said the carrier will cooperate with an investigation.

Indonesia had 3.77 fatal accidents for every 1 million takeoffs in the three years ended March 31, London-based aviation adviser Ascend said in 2007. The global rate was 0.25 then.

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