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Experts say don't jump to conclusions on Air France crash

Information from "black boxes" and other sources could help prevent future accidents.

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That prompted the NTSB to focus a lot of attention on that question and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open an investigation parallel to the NTSB’s. More than a year later, the FBI dropped it saying it had found no evidence of criminal activity.

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“If you remember TWA Flight 800, a lot of people thought they saw a lot of different things,” Healing says. “And that turned out to be total speculation and misleading to some degree. There are still people who believe that it was a missile [that brought the plane down].”

Healing helped investigate the cause of that crash, among many others. In that case, he focused on the wiring. The NTSB ultimately determined in 2000 that the “probable cause” was indeed faulty wiring which ignited jet fuel fumes in the center wing fuel tank causing the explosion.

“Having been in and out of the wreckage numerous times I can tell you that it’s quite clear what happened,” he says. “The physical facts are very, very telling, and the confirmation of it came from careful reconstruction of virtually everything that could be reconstructed.”

Recovery of "black boxes" a top priority

That’s why Healing and French investigators believe the top priority now should be the recovery of the black boxes and whatever wreckage can be found.

A French nuclear submarine is now heading to the area already being searched by French and Brazilian Navy ships. [A Brazilian military official said Saturday afternoon that two male bodies and a suitcase from the flight had been picked up.] Experts say the next two to three weeks are critical to an underwater search because the black boxes send out a locator “ping” for at least 30 days.

But some aviation experts worry that even with that locator beacon, the chances are slim of finding the flight data recorders, which are actually painted bright orange despite being called “black boxes.”

“It’s critical but it may not be possible,” says Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, aviation consultants in Evergreen, Colorado. “It’s not a nice sandy bottom down there, you have mountain ranges and valleys and all sorts of things down there. A three-by-two-foot orange box will be pretty hard to find.”

Preventing future accidents

But Healing says that even if searchers can’t find the black boxes, it will be crucial to continue the search for wreckage for many more months. That’s because current aviation safety is based in part on understanding the causes of accidents to help prevent similar ones in the future. While the A330 is about ten years old, it was made with some composite materials, which are expected to be used far more extensively in the future.

“We’re at the beginning of the next generation aircraft where more and more components of the aircraft are made of composite materials,” he says. “We need to know that it’s the right decision. We need to know if some of them failed [on Flight 447] whether they failed at a point that any other material would have failed.”

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