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Iran plane crash: What are black boxes, and why are they so important?

What a black box can say about the Iran plane crash
WATCH: What a black box can say about the Iran plane crash

Editor’s note: Global News previously reported, based on information from government officials, that 63 Canadians were killed in the Jan. 8 Ukraine International Airlines crash in Iran. On Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said that the number of crash victims who are Canadian citizens is now believed to be 57 due to additional information received. This story has been revised to reflect the latest figure provided by the Canadian government.

Iranian officials said on Friday that it will analyze the black box recordings of the Ukrainian plane — which was carrying 57 Canadians and more who lived in Canada — that downed outside Tehran earlier this week.

However, officials from several countries, including Canada and Ukraine, have demanded to have access to all matters related to the investigation. On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the plane was likely shot down by an Iranian missile, and that he wants answers.

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READ MORE: Iran denies shooting down Ukrainian plane, wants Canada, U.S. to release data

“Canada is working with its allies to ensure that a thorough and credible investigation is conducted to determine the causes of this fatal crash. As I said yesterday, Canadians have questions and they deserve answers,” Trudeau said.

Iran, which denies the Boeing 737-800 was downed by a missile, said it could take one or two months to extract information from the voice and flight data recorders.

Trudeau: Evidence indicates plane ‘shot down’ by Iranian missile
Trudeau: Evidence indicates plane ‘shot down’ by Iranian missile

It added that Russia, Canada, France or Ukraine may be asked to help in the probe, which could take up to two years to complete.

Here’s a look at why the black boxes of planes are so crucial in investigations of downed flights.

What is a black box and why is it so important?

A black box is made up of two components, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. One keeps track of conversations that occur in the cockpit, while the other stores information about flights such as speed, altitude and fuel levels.

Despite the name, black boxes in planes are typically bright orange cylinders. They’re typically kept in the tail of an aircraft, which is less likely to be damaged in a crash.

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David Soucie, a former U.S. Federal Aviation Administration accident inspector and CNN safety analyst, said “sophisticated analysis of the black box” of a plane is essential in investigations into accidents.

Cellphone video purports to show moment plane struck by Iranian missile
Cellphone video purports to show moment plane struck by Iranian missile

Soucie pointed to the 2014 crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down while flying over Ukraine.

“During the MH17 analysis of the black box, there were three microphones in the cockpit,” he explained. “So, we were able to determine based on the speed of the sound entering each of those — and we’re talking milliseconds here — we were able to determine the speed of the implosion or the explosion and parallel that to the type of missile.”

Much of the search around the mysterious downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which also occurred in 2014, focused on finding the plane’s black boxes.

However, there are limits to what black boxes can reveal.

“The big thing I would say about black boxes is they’ll tell you what happened, they won’t tell you why it happened,” Soucie said.

How the black box could help in this case

Ross Aimer, the CEO of aviation company Aero Consulting Experts, noted that in many crash cases black box evidence is enough to form a full picture of what happened.

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In the case of this crash, he noted it may be more complicated.

“The two recorders should be able to give them a huge clue,” he said. “The other big clues are the pieces of the aircraft, even if they’re charred. And the pieces of the bodies, they would have basically the signature of whatever caused the explosion.”

Iran plane crash: Flowers, candles left at memorial in Ukraine airport for victims
Iran plane crash: Flowers, candles left at memorial in Ukraine airport for victims

Aimer noted the crash occurred mere hours after a missile attack on military bases, which made the area one of the “most watched places in the world” at that time, which will aide in the investigation.

“Crash investigation of airplanes is a big science. There are people who have done it for ages and they know what they’re doing,” he said.

What Iran has said about the black boxes

Iranian state television showed images of battered black boxes reported to be from the Ukraine International Airlines flight earlier this week, adding that their information could be downloaded and analyzed.

Ali Abedzadeh, the head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, said the country prefers to deal with the boxes within Iran.

“We prefer to download the black boxes in Iran. But if we see that we can’t do that because the boxes are damaged, then we will seek help,” Abedzadeh said during a news conference in Tehran.

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READ MORE: Here’s everything we know so far about the Iran plane crash

Government spokesperson Ali Rabiei added that Iran is open to co-operating with other countries during the investigation.

“All those countries whose citizens were aboard the plane can send representatives and we urge Boeing to send its representative to join the process of investigating the black box,” he said.

Rabiei has said Iran will not hand over the black boxes to another country.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said Friday that the issue of where the black boxes would be analyzed was still being discussed, but that Ukraine wants it to take place in Kyiv.

For now, Prystaiko said Ukrainian investigators have access to the black boxes and have been given access to recordings of air traffic controllers at the Tehran airport.

How is Iran handling the black box from Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752?
How is Iran handling the black box from Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752?

Under international aviation rules, Iran has the right to handle the investigation, aviation expert and retired pilot Jock Williams explained.

“I’m confident that they will co-operate with one or another of the qualified countries,” he said, noting the repercussions for not co-operating are too high.

Aimer added while Iran may not trust U.S. to help with the investigation, it has other options, such as France.

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Involving the plane manufacturers is also common practice. Boeing, an American manufacturer, has said it is ready to assist in the investigation “in any way needed.”

READ MORE: Why so many Canada-bound passengers were on the Ukraine flight that crashed in Iran

How will U.S., Canadian and French officials be involved?

U.S., Canadian and French representatives were expected to travel to Tehran, according to Iranian media, to participate in meetings about the investigation.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said two of its investigators were departing Canada Friday after the agency received an invitation to visit the crash site from Iranian authorities.

“The TSB is communicating and co-ordinating directly with other participating accident investigation agencies, as we usually do when involved in foreign investigations,” TSB said in a statement.

“We are continuing to pursue increased involvement in the Iranian accident investigation. However, the full extent of the TSB’s role in this investigation — including the degree of site access and the type of work to be carried out once at the site or elsewhere — is still being determined.”

Champagne says Canada has received ‘a few visas’ from Iran
Champagne says Canada has received ‘a few visas’ from Iran

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne also confirmed to Global News that Canada has been issued several visas by Iran.

“So this is something that is very fluid,” Champagne told The West Block guest host Eric Sorensen.

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“We’re monitoring this situation hour by hour with officials and as soon as we have people on the ground, we’ll be able to provide further details about where we are and certainly participate actively in the investigation as everyone would expect.”

— With files from Global News reporter Rachael D’Amore, Reuters and The Associated Press