July 18, 2014 5:29 pm

Will loss of black boxes hinder MH17 investigation?

Rescuers stand on July 18, 2014 on the site of the crash of a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine. Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

TORONTO – Much of the story surrounding Malaysian Flight MH17, shot down over eastern Ukraine Thursday, remains shrouded in shadow. Investigators will likely be combing through the wreckage days to come.

Around the world, leaders called for an immediate cease-fire in the region to allow quick access to the site for international investigators.

On Friday about 30 people, mostly from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, travelled to the site.

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“No black boxes have been found … we hope that experts will track them down and create a picture of what has happened,” Donetsk separatist leader Aleksandr Borodai said.

What is a black box and how does it work?

But even if they don’t, that won’t necessarily stop investigators from understanding what brought down MH17.

There are two types of black boxes on a plane: A data voice recorder allows investigators to hear what transpired moments before the plane was shot down; a black box gives technical information on how the plane was operating.

Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators won’t depend on the black box alone to get a picture of what happened in the moments leading up to the loss of MH17. But he said  it’s important that the site hasn’t been tampered with – a tall order in a war zone.

“You have to depend on almost all jurisdictions, global police, local authorities, etcetera to secure the accident site until the investigators can get there,” he said. “But that sounds to me a little iffy in this situation.”

VIDEO GALLERY: Loss of Malaysian Flight MH17

An investigation of this size poses its challenges, not only because of the reports of a missile fire.

“Most of these accident sites are extremely difficult work areas because not only to do you have the aircraft, the jet fuel, the various fluids. … In this case, regrettably, at some point you have the remains of some 300 human souls all that have to be dealt with in a respectful and responsible manner.”

“On an accident of this size, of that type of work, assuming the accident site has been secured, can take a week or more.”

Having a black box would help investigators paint a full picture of what happened.

“The first thing you’d always want to try to do is locate the black box and get it sent back to the laboratory,” Hall said. “The second thing is to map the debris fields, sometimes there’s more than one debris field, sometimes there are pieces that have fallen off the aircraft far from the accident site.”

Another key tool would be to secure nearby air traffic control tapes and any air-to-ground or ground-to-air communications.

Earlier Friday, an aide to the military leader of Borodai’s group said authorities had recovered eight out of 12 recording devices. Since planes usually have two black boxes – one for recording flight data and the other for recording cockpit voices – it wasn’t clear what the aide was referring to. It was possible he was referring to a variety of computer systems.

A woman walks at the site of a crashed Malaysia Airlines passenger plane near the village of Rozsypne, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 18, 2014.

AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky

“The black box is the most important piece of any aviation accident investigation – flight recorder, cockpit voice recorder,” Hall said. “However, accident investigations took place long before black boxes, so … no, you don’t have to have it, but it is the best and most reliable piece of evidence that you have out of an aviation accident.”

The black box could shed light on hundreds of factors including wind speed, the settings of various flight controls, instruments readings and engine performance.

In an investigation such as this one – where thei’ve  crash is being blamed on a surface-to-ground missile strike – the cockpit voice recorder could be invaluable.

“There are sound signatures for most different types of explosives,” Hall said. “So you can do a sound-spectrum analysis … you have recordings of the wavelengths created by the explosions of different types of explosive devices.

“You can certainly tell the difference between an explosion that occurred internally in the aircraft and something that is external.”

Hall said the black box could have been taken, but if someone tried to tamper with it and then return it, investigators would know. It might be easier for anyone wanting to conceal evidence to simply destroy it.

But “just because you have a piece of black box information that doesn’t mean that you don’t also want to have any other factual information you can get from the evidence,” Hall said. “The aircraft will normally tell its own story.”

With files from The Associated Press

© Shaw Media, 2014

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