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Investigators Race to Find EgyptAir Jet’s Black Boxes

May 27, 2016

PARIS — A French naval vessel fitted with sophisticated underwater sensors raced on Friday toward the eastern Mediterranean Sea, as the window for locating the so-called black boxes of a downed Egyptian airliner rapidly closed.

The ship is expected to arrive in the search zone early next week to help locate and recover the EgyptAir jet’s cockpit voice and data recorders. The recorders, commonly called black boxes, are likely to contain the only definitive evidence about the cause of the May 19 disaster, which killed all 66 people on board.

As time elapses, the need to find the recorders takes on increased urgency. The battery-powered beacons are certified to emit a distinct metronomic “ping” for roughly 30 days after a crash, which means the EgyptAir jet’s black boxes are likely to fall silent by the middle of June.

“For the sake of the flying public and the aircraft industry, we need to get equipment in the water to find out what happened,” said David Gallo, an oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who helped lead a two-year search in the Atlantic Ocean for the wreck of an Air France jet that crashed in 2009.

Capt. Didier Piaton, a spokesman for the French Navy, said on Friday that the survey ship Laplace was en route from Porto Vecchio, Corsica, and was likely to arrive in the search zone north of Alexandria, Egypt, by Sunday or Monday.

The ship is equipped with three towed underwater listening devices that are adapted to the depth of the search area, which is estimated to be more than 9,800 feet. According to their French manufacturer, Alseamar, the devices are capable of detecting the beacons from a distance of up to 2.5 miles and can easily distinguish their signals from the noise of other vessels or sea life such as whales.

French investigators said that discussions were also being finalized with the operator of a deep-sea salvage vessel equipped with an underwater robot and sonar equipment.

A steady drip of incomplete and often contradictory reports about various signals and scraps of data that Egyptian officials may have received from the missing plane, an Airbus A320, has led to confusion and undermined international confidence in the investigation.

Neither Egypt’s chief investigator, Ayman al-Moqadem, nor its aviation minister, Sherif Fathi, responded to repeated queries on Friday for clarification about news reports that an emergency radio signal from the plane had been picked up by a satellite.

That signal reportedly came from one of the plane’s three emergency locator transmitters, which are attached to the plane’s fuselage and are normally set off at the moment of impact. But those transmitters, which rely on antennas, do not function underwater and are not related to the black-box beacons.

Aviation safety experts said it was possible that one of the transmitters managed to send a fleeting distress signal to a satellite at the moment the plane hit the water on May 19. Such a signal, if verified, could help to significantly narrow the search area from the vast initial area of more than 5,800 square miles.

The only confirmed data received from the plane were a series of seven automated messages sent to an EgyptAir maintenance base in the minutes before the flight vanished from radar en route to Cairo from Paris. Those messages signaled the opening of a cockpit window and two smoke alerts — one in a bathroom, and another in an electronics bay near the cockpit and close to many of the plane’s computerized control systems.

The alerts indicate that there was an emergency on board, but experts said they were insufficient to isolate the cause of the crash.

Egyptian officials have said terrorism is a possible cause for the crash, and some news outlets have blamed security standards at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, from which Flight 804 departed.

Within hours of the crash, French prosecutors opened a preliminary criminal investigation, including the possibility of a security breach at Charles de Gaulle. The French police and security services have been combing hours of surveillance video of passenger and luggage screening checkpoints from the day of the crash and are interviewing airport ground staff members, including security guards, baggage handlers, catering crews and cleaners.

So far, these investigations have failed to yield any evidence of foul play.

Gérard Arnoux, a former Air France A320 pilot and advocate for relatives of air crash victims, was sharply critical of the inconsistent communication by the Egyptian authorities in charge of the EgyptAir investigation.

“They should be more transparent,” Mr. Arnoux said. “The way they are handling this only feeds the conspiracy theories everywhere. People are going mad.”

Declan Walsh and Nour Youssef contributed reporting from Cairo.