Monday, December 01, 2008

Air New Zealand A320 crash.

48-hour wait for last words from black box

The first answers as to why an Air New Zealand jet crashed into the Mediterranean Sea could be known in days, as investigators carefully piece together the doomed crew's final conversations.

The aircraft's cockpit voice recorder is heading to Paris today where it will be dried before data extraction begins. Divers were last night working to retrieve the flight data recorder - the most vital of the two black boxes.

The crucial development came as families of the dead touched down at the same airport their loved ones should have landed at days earlier.

Seven crew members died as the Airbus A320 went into the sea last Friday in what some here are saying was a bid by its pilots to avoid hitting the small seaside town of Canet, near Perpignan on the French south coast.

Five New Zealanders were on the aircraft, along with the two German pilots who were preparing it for handing back to Air New Zealand.

The recovery of the black box came as Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe arrived overnight with the family of engineer Murray White.

Other family members, including Sally Cook, the wife of Wellington engineer Jeremy Cook, were due to arrive last night.

Perpignan's deputy prosecutor Dominique Alzeari said the voice recorder was in good condition.

"The last minutes of the flight will provide information on the causes of the crash," he said.

Aviation Industry Association chief executive Irene King said the data recorder was the most important of the black boxes because it monitored everything to do with the plane, including its engines, electronics and flight management system.

"With the combination of the [voice and data recorder] on the A320, they should be able to tell exactly what's gone on, pretty quickly."

She said the voice recorder contained the last 30 or so minutes of conversation between the pilots and air traffic control.

"It's quite limited in what it contains, but what they'll be looking for is any clear acknowledgment from the pilots that they knew something was seriously wrong." More than 40 divers worked for several hours yesterday and were returning to the water last night to continue searching for bodies and the second black box.

Bad weather and murky waters hampered recovery efforts, but French authorities said retrieving the missing bodies was the main priority.

Divers have been unable to get into the cockpit where remains are likely to be located.

"We want to return the bodies to their families in the best of conditions and as fast as possible, with dignity," Mr Alzeari said.

The two bodies that have been found have been taken to Montpellier for dna testing.

Gendarme Pierre Renault said once the other bodies were retrieved they could be handed over to families "so they can start mourning".

Perpignan's L'independant newspaper reported that it appeared the pilots tried to avoid hitting the village of Canet.

"It ascended and then cut out. That was it, then nothing. It fell. I can tell you it was only flying on one engine ... and with only one engine there was nothing to be done," said retired aviation mechanic Claude Pedro, who saw the crash.

"What is certain, is that the aircraft could easily have crashed and fallen on Canet.

"In some way, they sacrificed their lives to save others and to try to save the aircraft."

Voices from the sea