CAIRO – A French ship has detected the signal from a black box recorder on the EgyptAir plane that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea last month, a development that could bring investigators closer to explaining the crash, which killed all 66 people on board.
Once the search teams determine their exact location, they will use sophisticated equipment, including robots, to recover the flight data and voice recorders -- believed to be 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) beneath the sea. The recorders' location could point to the whereabouts of the bulk of the wreckage.
Analyzing the recorders could reveal whether a mechanical fault, a hijacking or a bomb caused the aircraft to disappear from radar and plunge into the sea two weeks ago.
COMBING THE SEAS
Ships and planes from Egypt, Greece, France, the United States and other nations have been combing the Mediterranean north of the Egyptian port of Alexandria for the jet's voice and flight data recorders, as well as more bodies and parts of the aircraft.
The French naval ship Laplace, a research vessel that specializes in underwater searches, has picked up the signal of a detector attached to one of the recorders of flight MS804, according to the Alseamar company, which operates the onboard equipment.
A second ship, the SV John Lethbridge, which is affiliated with the Deep Ocean Search firm, will join the search later this week. The 75-meter-long survey vessel is equipped with sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle that can search up to 6,000 meters deep.
Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said an Oil Ministry submarine will head to the crash site to search for the black boxes, but Ayman al-Moqadem, the head of the investigation team, said the submarine is not equipped to detect flight recorder signals.
RECOVERING THE BLACK BOXES
Search teams will now work to find and recover the black boxes, which are mounted in the tail sections of planes and designed to survive crashes intact.
The black boxes should lead searchers to the crash site, which the investigation team believes to be within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) area. Then they'll have to develop a plan for recovering the boxes.
"The main question now is how deep the black boxes are and what is the equipment capable of pulling them up," said Tawfiq al-Assi, former head of EgyptAir. "It will be a huge challenge if the black boxes are resting at a depth of more than 3,000 (meters)."
Once the black boxes are retrieved, the search will continue for the rest of the wreckage.
WHAT THE RECORDERS CAN TELL US
The black boxes may help investigators determine what happened to the Airbus plane, which crashed hours after taking off from Paris on May 19 bound for Cairo.
Egypt's civil aviation minister Sherif Fathi has said he believes terrorism is a more likely explanation than equipment failure or some other catastrophic event. But no hard evidence has emerged on the cause, and no militant group has claimed to have downed the jet. Earlier, leaked flight data indicated a sensor detected smoke in a lavatory and a fault in two of the plane's cockpit windows in the final moments of the flight.
The voice recorder should contain a record of the last 30 minutes in the cockpit, and is equipped to detect even loud breathing. The data recorder would contain technical information on the engines, wings and cabin pressure. Investigators hope the black boxes will offer clues as to why there was no distress call.
"The information will direct the investigation in a certain direction," said Hany Galal, a retired pilot and plane crash investigator.