Why France is analyzing Ethiopian jet's black boxes


PARIS (AP) — France doesn’t see an unusually large number of aviation disasters, but its plane crash investigators are world famous.

The French air accident investigation authority, known by its French acronym BEA, is now handling the analysis of the flight recorders from the Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed after takeoff earlier this week, killing 157 people.

Ethiopian authorities wanted European investigators to handle the analysis because of its complexity, according to BEA spokesman Sebastien Barthe. They initially asked Germany, which said it didn’t have the necessary capacity to take it on, so then the Ethiopians turned to France, Barthe told The Associated Press.

And the BEA said yes.

The French agency, based in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget, has extensive experience in investigating crashes and other incidents involving commercial flights. The BEA notably helps with investigations in countries without the resources or equipment to analyze the flight recorders, often called the black boxes.

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BEA investigators are also often called upon when an Airbus plane has a problem anywhere in the world, because the aviation manufacturer is based in France. This time the plane was a Boeing, whose popular 737 Max 8 model has been grounded or barred from air space in more than 40 countries pending investigation into what caused Sunday’s crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S., where Boeing is based, said it will send three investigators to France to help download and analyze the flight recorders. NTSB investigators have also been sent to Ethiopia to help with the investigation.

Aviation safety experts say it’s standard procedure for the country where a crash occurred to lead the investigation and decide where the flight data and voice recorders will be analyzed. Smaller countries, like Ethiopia, don’t have the equipment to read damaged recorders, so they get to choose where they want that done. In this case, Ethiopia picked France, but not the U.S., which certified the airworthiness of the 737 Max jets.

Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the NTSB who is now an aviation consultant, said Ethiopian investigators likely avoided sending the data to the U.S. because its Federal Aviation Administration certified the airworthiness of the Max and has a relationship with manufacturer Boeing.

The FAA’s reluctance to ground the planes when most of the world already had done so might also have played a role, Goelz added.

“I can’t speak for the Ethiopians,” Goelz said. “I’m sure that was under consideration that the FAA was adamant until they weren’t. I think Ethiopia wanted to choose and investigative partner that clearly didn’t have a dog in the fight.”

Preliminary results may arrive as early as Friday, Goelz said.

The BEA isn’t saying how long it will take to analyze the recorders — which are actually orange, despite their nickname. One collects data such as the plane’s altitude and airspeed, while the other records the sounds in the cockpit. Analysis typically takes days or weeks, depending on whether the recorders were damaged in the crash.

The French agency insists that its investigations are not aimed at assigning blame but at finding out what went wrong to make recommendations to improve air safety around the world.

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Among major crash investigations the BEA has led were the 2015 plunge of a Germanwings jet — whose black boxes revealed that the co-pilot had deliberately slammed the plane into an Alpine mountainside after locking the captain out of the cockpit.

The BEA also studied the flight recorders retrieved from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean two years after the 2009 crash of Rio-Paris Air France Flight 447. The investigation determined its speed sensors had iced over, causing confusion in the cockpit.

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