Iran's COVID-19 crisis delaying planned transfer of Flight 752's black boxes to Europe

The COVID-19 outbreak in Iran has delayed the transfer of "black box" flight recorders recovered from the wreckage of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 for analysis, the chair of Canada's Transportation Safety Board says.

Iran commits to sending the flight recorders to France or Ukraine

The international community has been pushing Iran to turn over the black boxes recovered from the debris of Flight 752. (AFP via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 outbreak in Iran has delayed the transfer of "black box" flight recorders recovered from the wreckage of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 for analysis, the chair of Canada's Transportation Safety Board says.

Kathy Fox told CBC News that Iran notified her office on March 5 that an earlier plan to transport the black boxes for analysis had been cancelled because "problems of [the] coronavirus between states" were affecting the ability of Iranian officials to travel outside the country.

The Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau of the Islamic Republic of Iran added that it was also facing delays because the "coronavirus in Iran was affecting organizational activities and the availability of human resources."

"There was a plan to take [the recorders] to Ukraine. However, that's been delayed because of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Iran," said Fox. "That is affecting their ability to travel at this time.

"It's just one more challenge that nobody needed."

The COVID-19 death toll in Iran now stands at 354, according to the semi-official Fars news agency. Iran's senior vice president and two cabinet ministers reportedly have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

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Black boxes headed to Europe

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency, told CBC News it heard from Iran Wednesday that it intends to send the black boxes to either Ukraine or France for analysis and would announce the location "in a very short time."

"The Council welcomed live-feed updates from the Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to ICAO on the status of its ongoing investigation," said ICOA Council President Salvatore Sciacchitano in a media statement. "I provided further updates relevant to a letter I received from [Iran] earlier today confirming its intentions to have the PS752 black boxes analyzed in either Ukraine or France."

Iran admitted its military mistakenly shot down the jet shortly after it took off from Tehran on Jan. 8, just hours after Iran's forces fired missiles at Iraqi bases where U.S. troops were stationed.

That attack was in retaliation for an American drone strike that killed a high-ranking Iranian military general in Iraq. Of the 176 people killed in the plane crash, 57 were Canadian citizens and 29 were permanent residents.

TSB Chair Kathy Fox said Iran reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has sidelined plans to deliver Flight 752's flight data recorders to Europe. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Iran should not use COVID-19 as 'an excuse': Champagne

Canada has been pushing Iran to follow international rules for aviation investigations and hand over the black boxes to another country. Iran doesn't have the expertise to download and analyze the data and has been dragging its heels on sending the black boxes elsewhere.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Wednesday that by slow-walking the release of the flight recorders, Iran is ignoring international rules on civilian aviation.

"I would hope the Iranian regime would not start using the coronavirus as an excuse not to provide the transparency, the accountability and the justice that the victims have been waiting for," he said after question period in the House of Commons.

Iran has granted Canada permission to have its officials present when the contents of the black boxes — the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder — are downloaded and analyzed. The cockpit voice recorder captures communication between crew members and air traffic control, while the flight data recorder tracks air speed, engine thrust and altitude.

The contents of black boxes are usually critical to crash investigations. In this case, however, the cause is no mystery: Iran admitted its military shot down the jet.

Fox said the black boxes may not clarify everything, but might at least answer some questions the victims' families still have. 

"Everybody's anxious to hear what's on those recorders."

A flight recorder purportedly recovered from the crashed Ukrainian airliner is seen in this still image taken from a video in Tehran, Iran January 10, 2020. (IRIB via WANA/Reuters)


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct involving senior leaders in the Canadian military. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca