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Sina Shiri/AP
People walk at the scene of a plane crash near the village of Jannat Abad, around
75 miles northwest of Tehran in Iran, Wednesday, July 15, 2009 (AP). 

Caspian Airlines Crash Highlights Deficiencies in Iranian Airline Industry

July 16, 2009 06:30 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Investigators have found two of the three black boxes from the downed Iranian plane. Their analysis might reveal key issues about Iran’s aging fleet of jetliners.

Black Boxes From Iranian Plane Crash Recovered

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Two black boxes were recovered this morning from the Caspian Airlines passenger plane that crashed on July 15 outside the village of Jannat Abad, approximately 75 miles northwest of Tehran, The Associated Press reports. The crash killed all 168 passengers and crewmembers aboard the flight bound for Yerevan, Armenia, in what the AP describes as “Iran's worst air disaster in six years.”

According to witnesses of the crash, the plane circled in the air, out of control, its tail in flames before it went down. The AP reports that the “[f]laming wreckage” left “body parts and personal items … strewn over a 200-yard (meter) area.” As witness Ali Akbar Hashemi told the AP, “I saw the plane crashing nose-down. It hit the ground causing a big explosion. The impact shook the ground like an earthquake."

“Because of the severity of the crash, the two black box recorders found are badly damaged, even though they are made of steel," Deputy Transport Minister Ahmad Majidi explained to the Mehr News Agency, according to Reuters. The third black box is still missing, but the two recovered boxes will probably be sent to Russia, where the plane was manufactured, to be analyzed, AP reported.

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Reactions: Experts provide theories to explain the crash

The exact cause of the accident is still unknown, but a series of theories have surfaced. According to what Majidi told Mehr News Agency, the Caspian Airlines pilot was experienced, and the accident was most likely caused by “technical problems.” Caspian Airlines representative Arlen Davudyan, however, told Reuters that the plane “had a full technical check in Russia about a month ago and permission for flying was extended until 2010.”

Patrick Smith, a pilot and air travel writer for Salon.com, told the AP that the flames in the plane’s tail section might suggest “an uncontained engine failure,” but he thinks it’s too early to say for sure. The problem could be elsewhere, he said, and “the flames a sign of a compressor stall caused when the plane went out of control, interrupting airflow through the engine.”

Historical Context: Iranian airlines strive to maintain their fleets

Due to severe budget constraints, Iranian airlines have had difficulties maintaining a fleet of mostly older planes. Maintenance problems have also affected the Iranian military, AP reports.

The last air tragedy in Iran occurred in 2003 when a Ilyushin aircraft manufactured in Russia crashed in a mountainous area of southeastern Iran, leaving 302 people dead. As the AP explains, Caspian Airlines is a private joint venture between Iran and Russia founded in 1993. The airline has a fleet of Tu-154 airplanes built in Russia between 1989 and 1993; production was stopped in 1996.

According to CBS News correspondent Richard Roth, U.S. and international trade sanctions make it difficult for Iran to update their planes. The U.S. sanctions, for example, “prevent Iran from updating American aircraft bought before the 1979 Islamic revolution and make it difficult to get European spare parts or planes as well.” These restrictions, together with a lack of economic resources, have forced Iran to rely on Russian planes, many of which were built during the Soviet-era, making it difficult to get replacement parts since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Background: How black boxes work

As HowStuffWorks explains, a black box is a loose term that actually describes two devices: the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR).

According to the book “Great Mythconceptions” by Karl Kruszelnicki and Adam Yazxhi, available on Google Books, the first black box followed the first commercial jetliner, the Comet, which “began to fall out of the sky—and nobody knew why.” Starting in 1957, it was required on all aircraft weighing more than 20,000 pounds. The earliest devices recorded essential data about the plane using “metal foil and steel wire.” The modern black box “has no moving parts and records directly onto solid state memory,” much like a computer. But older models of black boxes still exist on some aircraft.

Both the FDR and the CVR are housed in the tail of the plane, which is usually last to hit the ground or water. They are encased in aluminum, followed by heat-insulating material and stainless steel. They can withstand 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, 3,400 G of acceleration, salt water and the pressure of the ocean’s depths. “All this high-end engineering means that a Black Box costs about $20,000-30,000,” according to “Great Mythconceptions.” 



The black box is run by power generators that derive their energy from a plane’s engines. The FDR gets its data from the front of the airplane, where information from the plane’s many sensors is sent to something called a flight-data acquisition unit (FDAU), HowStuffWorks explains. 



The CVR doesn’t just track the voices of the pilots; it can also pick up “any ambient noise in the cockpit, such as switches being thrown or any knocks or thuds,” according to HowStuffWorks. There are usually up to four microphones in the cockpit: on the pilots’ headsets and in the center of the cockpit.
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