Long-awaited analysis of downed Flight PS752’s black boxes expected to get underway in France

Long-awaited analysis of downed Flight PS752's black boxes expected to get underway in France

Experts in France under the supervision of Iranian investigators are expected to start the long-awaited download of Flight PS752’s black boxes on Monday, while countries including Canada observe from the sidelines in Paris.

After denying responsibility for days, Iran said it mistakenly shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight with missiles shortly after takeoff in Iran on Jan 8. All 176 passengers onboard died, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents. 

Over the weekend, Canada deployed a team of investigators with the Transportation Safety Board to Paris to observe the much-anticipated download and analysis of the plane’s two flight data recorders. 

“It’s a very long, painful journey for all the family members to just have this first piece of information,” said Hamed Esmaeilion, of Richmond Hill, Ont., north of Toronto. His nine-year-old daughter Reera and wife Parisa Eghbalian died in the crash. 

“We need to have our answers.”

The black boxes have been at the centre of an international tug of war for more than six months. Canada, along with countries around the world who lost citizens in the downing, have united to pressure Iran to follow international conventions and transport the recorders to a country capable of reading them without delay.

The download is finally scheduled to start Monday with representatives from multiple countries present, including Canada, Iran, France, Ukraine, the U.S. and Sweden. Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne confirmed Sunday the black boxes have officially arrived in Paris.

Hamed Esmaeilion, left, lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter, Reera, in the downing of Flight PS752. (Supplied)

Canadian experts likely to watch virtually in Paris

Dozens of victims’ families in Canada were told by the chair of the TSB that its investigators would likely have to observe the process virtually in another room in Paris via a live video link. The lab’s download room isn’t big enough to accommodate everyone while properly physically distancing due to COVID-19 measures, according to the association representing families of victims in Canada.

Esmaeilion, the association’s spokesperson, said families don’t trust Iran and are angry it’s taken more than six months to get to this point in the investigation. Families know the black boxes are only a small window into what happened and won’t provide answers for what they really want to know: who specifically is responsible for the downing and who decided to keep the airspace open on a night of intense military activity.

“Families are frustrated,” he said. “Some of them are so furious they can’t wait.”

Recorders could be damaged

The contents of flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders are usually critical to crash investigations. In this case, however, the cause is no mystery: Iran later admitted it shot down the jetliner, saying it was mistaken for an incoming missile. In an interim report last week, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization blamed a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defence operator and his commanders for the downing.

Investigators pick up debris at the crash site of the Ukraine International Airlines plane that was shot down after takeoff from Iran’s Imam Khomeini Airport on Jan. 8, 2020. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA via Reuters)

Iran has also reported in the past that the recorders could have been damaged in the downing, raising questions about whether experts will be able to read them. France’s BEA air accident investigation agency is known as one of the world’s leading agencies for reading flight recorders.

The cockpit voice recorder captures the conversations between the pilots and the air traffic controller. The data recorder includes the time the plane took off, its location, altitude, how the plane’s engines and system are performing and when the missile struck. 

Experts say results will likely be ‘anticlimactic’

Larry Vance, a former veteran Transportation Safety Board plane crash investigator, warned that the findings on these black boxes will likely be anticlimactic.

“If people think we’re going to get a lot of answers for what happened based on these data recorders, I think they’re going to be disappointed,” Vance told CBC News. “I think it’s going to be quite anticlimactic.”

Canadians across the country, including in Calgary, lit candles in memory of those who died on Flight PS752. The crash killed 176 people, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

The data might show that the plane was functioning perfectly, and then it all just stops when the missile strikes and the recorders cut out. Ideally, the recorders might have captured a few seconds of the aftermath and sound of the pilots’ reaction in the cockpit, he said.

“The interesting part will be when the first missile struck the airplane, did it disable the data recorders right away, or was there some time span when the electricity continued to flow through them and they continued to operate,” Vance said.

Results could take weeks to be made public

While the download could happen quickly if the black boxes aren’t damaged, it could take weeks for the results to be interpreted and made public. Swedish officials have told citizens it’s expecting an update in August, according to a letter obtained by CBC News. 

“Once the process of downloading the data from the recorders has been completed, a rather extensive workload follows in order to analyze the thousands of parameters that the information contains,” said a document from the Swedish Accident Authority dated July 13. 

“I expect that part of the process to take two to three weeks.”

The TSB’s chair, Kathy Fox, is expected to give an update later on Canada’s efforts later Monday morning.

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