Swissair Recorder Lacks Key Data
Sep. 07, 1998
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (AP) _ The flight-data recorder recovered by divers near the wreckage of Swissair Flight 111 contains no information from the final crucial minutes before the plane crashed, investigators said Monday.
The setback offset good news from the search operation: a Canadian navy submarine has detected a signal from the plane's other ``black box'' _ the cockpit-voice recorder.
The chief crash investigator, Vic Gerden, said the flight-data recorder retrieved Sunday was in good condition and should provide more than 100 types of information ranging from altitude and airspeed to whether the plane's smoke warning lights were on.
But he said there was no data from at least the last six minutes before the MD-11 jumbo jet plunged into the ocean off Nova Scotia on Wednesday night, killing all 229 people aboard.
Gerden said the data recording stopped once the plane dipped below 10,000 feet. A strong possibility, he said, was that the plane lost electrical power at that stage.
Also Monday, Navy officers revealed dramatic details about Sunday's retrieval of the data recorder. Capt. Phil Webster said one of the two divers developed a leak in his suit, and the pair had to make an ascent _ clutching the black box _ much more rapidly than normal.
One of the divers became ill from the rapid change in pressure. Both were put in a decompression chamber, then taken to a hospital. Both are recovering at home, Webster said.
Meanwhile, the plane's manufacturer acknowledged that much of the electrical wiring aboard the plane was insulated with aromatic polyimide tape, known by the trade name Kapton, which has been banned from use in U.S. Navy planes.
Boeing Co. spokeswoman Susan Bradley said all the general-purpose wiring aboard the plane was insulated with Kapton.
The U.S. Navy banned Kapton from its aircraft because of poor performance, Air Safety Week, an industry newsletter, reported Monday.
At the crash site five miles offshore, divers equipped with hand-held sonar searched 190 feet underwater Monday for the cockpit-voice recorder.
If retrieved intact, the voice recorder would reveal other noises in the cockpit besides the pilots' conversation with controllers, portions of which were released Saturday. That conversation was cut off 10 minutes after the pilots reported smoke in the cockpit and six minutes before the crash.
Divers also were trying to confirm if three large pieces of wreckage found near the flight data recorder are sections of the plane's fuselage.
Although officials have declined to give an updated figure of how many bodies have been recovered from the crash site, they have indicated that most remain in the sea. Recovery of the fuselage could lead to recovery of many more bodies, officials said.
The Geneva-bound Swissair plane crashed 16 minutes after the pilots reported the smoke and decided to attempt an emergency landing more than an hour after leaving New York's Kennedy International Airport.
After reporting an emergency, the plane started toward the Halifax airport, but made two sharp turns as it tried to descend and dump fuel.
Swissair officials say the plane couldn't have made a direct approach to Halifax because it was flying too high and was too heavy with 30 tons of fuel. The call was made 70 miles out of Halifax, but the pilots would have needed 130 miles to make a direct landing, Swissair said.
Alan Wolk, a U.S. pilot and aviation lawyer, said Sunday that Flight 111's pilot, Urs Zimmermann, should have begun a direct emergency descent sooner.
``The MD-11 could have been landed overweight without difficulty,'' Wolk said. ``We have learned from aircraft fires historically that the only procedure that has a prayer of avoiding an accident is the quickest possible descent and landing.''
Two relatives of one victim echoed Wolk's opinion Monday as they visited Peggy's Cove, the tiny fishing village closest to the crash scene.
Cheryl Klein and her brother, Abe, whose father was killed, blamed the pilot for the crash.
``I think he wasted valuable time when he made that big circle to dump (fuel),'' said Cheryl.
Several hundred family members have come to the area to visit Peggy's Cove, attend memorial services and assist medical teams in trying to identify badly fragmented human remains retrieved by searchers.
More than 1,400 military personnel are involved in the search, and more than 200 stress counselors have been assigned to support them during their often grisly work.
``Some of the stuff they're being exposed to is truly horrible,'' said Mary Anne Murphy, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.
At the Shearwater military air base near Halifax, relatives have been invited to look at personal effects found by the search team.
Claire Mortimer, 45, of Berkeley, Calif., said she went there hoping to find her stepmother's ring, and instead found the wallet of her father, former New York Times executive John Mortimer.
``It was a very wrenching experience,'' she said.
A memorial service was held late Monday for families and colleagues of Flight 111's crew at the Roman Catholic church in Kloten, next to Zurich airport.
Another memorial service was planned for Tuesday in Nairobi, Kenya, to honor Pierce Gerety, 56, an American who directed relief operations in central Africa for the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees.