Politics

Audio from Flight PS752's cockpit downloaded this morning, says TSB

Audio from the cockpit of Flight PS752 was successfully downloaded in France this morning, according to a top Canadian official, but it's still not clear if the data is salvageable.

Quality of audio data from black boxes, which were subject of international tug of war, still unknown

Canadian investigators are getting their first chance to analyze audio from the black boxes of Ukrainian Airlines Flight PS752. The Iranian military mistakenly shot down the passenger jet shortly after takeoff on Jan. 8, 2020. 7:03

Audio from the cockpit of Flight PS752 was successfully downloaded in France this morning, according to a top Canadian official, but it's still not clear if the data is salvageable.

The chair of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) said audio from inside the cockpit of the Ukraine International Airlines flight from Jan. 8 is now awaiting analysis.

"They have been successful at downloading the cockpit voice recorder data and it is available for analysis. What's on it, I don't know," Kathy Fox told CBC News Monday morning from Gatineau, Que.

"That data could certainly share the discussions the crew was having in the preparation leading up to the departure and up to the missile strike. Were there any concerns about security? Were there any warnings given to the pilots? Did they have an inkling of what was to happen?"

Fox said while there is data to analyze, observers aren't sure if the audio quality is even useable.

After initially denying responsibility for days, Iran said it mistakenly shot down the flight with missiles shortly after takeoff earlier this year. All 176 passengers onboard died, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.

Over the weekend, Canada deployed a team of investigators with the TSB to Paris to observe the much-anticipated download and analysis of the plane's two flight data recorders. 

"It's a very long, painful journey for all the family members to just have this first piece of information," said Hamed Esmaeilion, of Richmond Hill, Ont., north of Toronto. His nine-year-old daughter Reera and wife Parisa Eghbalian died in the crash. 

"We need to have our answers."

The black boxes have been at the centre of an international tug of war for more than six months. Canada, along with countries around the world who lost citizens in the downing, have united to pressure Iran to follow international conventions and transport the recorders to a country capable of reading them without delay.

The download was finally scheduled for Monday with representatives from multiple countries present, including Canada, Iran, France, Ukraine, the U.S. and Sweden.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he welcomes the download of the audio, but continues to push for an investigation into what happened.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau told CBC News Network's Power & Politics today that Canada will continue to push the Iranian government to be transparent, despite the significant trust deficit involved in dealing with Iran. 

"The families of the victims have a very good point, which I share, and that is that we have not been able to trust the Iranians up until now," Garneau told host Vassy Kapelos. 

"First of all, they denied that they fired missiles. Later on, they tried to intimidate family members. So I can understand the mistrust that exists with the Iranians.

"They've put out their version of the situation. We are going to make sure that we are satisfied with the facts here, and there are still many facts to come out of this, such as why was that airspace left open. So mistrust is well justified at this point."

Garneau said Iran is still the lead nation on the investigation, which means getting answers about what happened may be difficult. He said he is confident Canada's investigators will get unfettered access to the data stored on the flight recorders.

"I trust that the black boxes will be analyzed properly in front of a lot of people, so I am not concerned about the actual analysis of this because there are so many experts that are there," he said. 

Families angry over lengthy investigation

Dozens of victims' families in Canada were told by the chair of the TSB that its investigators would likely have to observe the process virtually in another room in Paris via a live video link. The lab's download room isn't big enough to accommodate everyone while properly physically distancing due to COVID-19 measures, according to the association representing families of victims in Canada.

Hamed Esmaeilion, left, lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter, Reera, in the downing of Flight PS752. (Supplied)

Esmaeilion, the association's spokesperson, said families don't trust Iran and are angry it's taken more than six months to get to this point in the investigation. Families know the black boxes are only a small window into what happened and won't provide answers for what they really want to know: who specifically is responsible for the downing and who decided to keep the airspace open on a night of intense military activity.

"Families are frustrated," he said. "Some of them are so furious they can't wait."

Recorders could be damaged

The contents of flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders are usually critical to crash investigations. In this case, however, the cause is no mystery: Iran later admitted it shot down the jetliner, saying it was mistaken for an incoming missile. In an interim report last week, Iran's Civil Aviation Organization blamed a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defence operator and his commanders for the downing.

Investigators pick up debris at the crash site of the Ukraine International Airlines plane that was shot down after takeoff from Iran's Imam Khomeini Airport on Jan. 8, 2020. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA/Reuters)

Iran has also reported in the past that the recorders could have been damaged in the downing, raising questions about whether experts will be able to read them. France's BEA air accident investigation agency is known as one of the world's leading agencies for reading flight recorders.

The cockpit voice recorder captures the conversations between the pilots and the air traffic controller. The data recorder includes the time the plane took off, its location, altitude, how the plane's engines and system are performing and when the missile struck. 

Experts say results will likely be 'anticlimactic'

Larry Vance, a former veteran TSB plane crash investigator, warned that the findings on these black boxes will likely be anticlimactic.

"If people think we're going to get a lot of answers for what happened based on these data recorders, I think they're going to be disappointed," Vance told CBC News. "I think it's going to be quite anticlimactic."

Canadians across the country, including in Calgary, lit candles in memory of those who died on Flight PS752. The crash killed 176 people, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

The data might show that the plane was functioning perfectly, and then it all just stops when the missile strikes and the recorders cut out. Ideally, the recorders might have captured a few seconds of the aftermath and sound of the pilots' reaction in the cockpit, he said.

"The interesting part will be when the first missile struck the airplane, did it disable the data recorders right away, or was there some time span when the electricity continued to flow through them and they continued to operate," Vance said.

Results could take weeks to be made public

Meanwhile, it could take weeks for the results to be interpreted and made public. Swedish officials have told citizens they are expecting an update in August, according to a letter obtained by CBC News. 

"Once the process of downloading the data from the recorders has been completed, a rather extensive workload follows in order to analyze the thousands of parameters that the information contains," said a document from the Swedish Accident Authority dated July 13. 

"I expect that part of the process to take two to three weeks."

Watch: Garneau says he is confident Canada will have full access to the black boxes from flight PS752:

Transport Minister Marc Garneau says he is confident Canada will have full access to the black boxes from flight PS752 and Canada will continue to push Iran to be fully transparent. 12:31

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

With files from Catharine Tunney

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