What's Up With Germanwings' Black Box Data?

Since the fatal crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 on Tuesday, investigators have been facing down one of the toughest, grimmest tasks in modern aviation: sifting through the remnants to piece together what went wrong, and how to prevent it in the future. But according to The New York Times Wednesday, that process may have already hit a snag. While both of the plane's flight recorder casings have reportedly since been discovered, the process isn't exactly smooth — the Germanwings Flight 9525 black boxes are damaged, creating obstacles to determining the cause of the tragic wreck.

To be clear, the term "black box" is a nickname for the onboard flight data recorders that run constantly while a commercial plane is in the air, one recording the voices of the pilots inside the cockpit, and one that tracks data on performance and internal diagnostic issues experienced throughout the flight. It's something of a deceptive term, because the recorders are bright orange to increase visibly in the event of a post-crash search, not black.

Ideally, they're supposed to survive crashes without sustaining any damage, but it appears that didn't happen here. The cockpit voice recorder, in fact, was badly damaged enough that the data extraction process was complicated. Thankfully, however, this has been at least partially overcome — French authorities now say they've extracted some audio from the recorder, though no information about its contents has been given just yet.

The stakes are high, for obvious reasons. On Tuesday, the United States National Security Council attempted to tamp down fears, saying there was no indications of terrorism in the Germanwings crash. But determining what actually happened is crucial, both to conclusively clear that possibility (French authorities also believe the terrorism angle to be unlikely, according to The New York Times), and to glean whether any other Airbus A320s might have flaws that need correcting.

There's also the search for the second black box, the flight data recorder. The casing for the recorder has been found, but its contents are missing, imperiling any hopes of recovering the flight data. In the event that the flight data is lost, the contents of the cockpit voice recording become even more crucial than before, as the only functional record of the incident.

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Ideally, it won't come to that. In the event that something happened the pilots couldn't recognize or identify, the voice recording could still theoretically leave a lot of uncertainties hanging. But it's better than nothing, that's for sure, and hopefully we'll find out soon what (if anything) French authorities have learned from the recoverable audio files.

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