Flt. 990 Black Box Sheds Little Light. Now What?

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All that the first EgyptAir Flight 990 black box has given us is another piece of the puzzle — but one that rules out rather than provides an easy solution. The NTSB announced Wednesday that analysis of the flight-data recorder reveals that the doomed plane's initial descent was a controlled maneuver by the pilot rather than a precipitous plunge, and that the Boeing 767's thrust reversers had not deployed in mid-flight, ruling out a hypothesis popular in media coverage immediately after the Halloween night crash. The big question, of course, is what prompted the pilot, eight seconds after the autopilot disconnected, to begin what appears to have been an emergency descent that later turned into a hellish plunge at a speed greater than that which the aircraft was designed for. The flight data recovered indicates only that until then it had been an "uneventful" flight, according to NTSB chairman Jim Hall. More than anything else, the data from the first black box only emphasizes the need to recover the second one — the voice-data recorder — from the ocean floor.

Even the flight-data analysis was incomplete, however. The last six seconds of tape, which had been damaged while under water, remain to be deciphered. But even then, investigators now know that the recorder stopped working late in the dive, but before — according to radar data — the plane climbed more than a mile and a half before its final plunge into the ocean. So Wednesday's press conference was mostly a heads-up to the media on the fact that investigators have more questions than answers.