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Who legally owns the Flight Data Recorder after an aircrash? Who is responsible for retrieving it and/or allowed to retrieve it?

And how is it decided who carries out the crash investigation?

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    $\begingroup$ I can answer the 'who is allowed to retrieve it?' part. Anyone who finds it. There is no anti-tampering built-in which would preclude anyone from 'picking it up'. I can, unfortunatly, also answer the 'how is it decided ...' part. Who ever controls the place the crash occurs, with weapons, ultimately decides, until someone else more powerful intervenes, or common sense prevails. $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Jul 18 '14 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ @CGCampbell: ICAO does have some power to persuade any country with at least a bit of sanity to follow proper investigation procedure. Territories in state of anarchy are a problem though. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 18 '14 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ Do you draw a distinction between ownership of the hardware vs the recorded data? $\endgroup$ – Criggie Apr 10 at 19:59
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Who legally owns the Flight Data Recorder after an aircrash?

Whoever owned it before the crash!

I'd guess this might be the aircraft owner (e.g. an airline or a leasing company) or an aircraft operator (e.g. an airline).

Ownership is less important than the obligations imposed by the relevant regulatory authorities, and probably by international treaties and agreements, effective in the area where the FDR is located after an accident.

For relevant discussion see NTSB FDR Handbook

And how is it decided who carries out the crash investigation?

There are a complicated set of rules agreed internationally. From memory I think it goes something like this:

  1. The government appointed body in whose territory(airspace?) the accident occurred. Or
  2. The government appointed body in whose country the aircraft was registered.

EMSA state

5.1 The State of Occurrence shall institute an investigation into the circumstances of the accident and be responsible for the conduct of the investigation, but it may delegate the whole or any part of the conducting of such investigation to another State by mutual arrangement and consent. In any event the State of Occurrence shall use every means to facilitate the investigation.

5.3 When the location of the accident or the serious incident cannot definitely be established as being in the territory of any State, the State of Registry shall institute and conduct any necessary investigation of the accident or serious incident. However, it may delegate the whole or any part of the investigation to another State by mutual arrangement and consent.

Example 1

The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) is part of the Department for Transport and is responsible for the investigation of civil aircraft accidents and serious incidents within the UK and its overseas territories.

Example 2

The NTSB is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the U.S.


Normally an air accident investigation organisation takes the lead role but co-opts experts from the airline, the manufacturer and other air-accident organisations with an interest in the incident or with special expertise. Involvement of interested parties (airline, ATC, manufacturer) obviously has to be handled very carefully to avoid detracting from the independence of the investigation.

Most investigations focus almost exclusively on determining facts and recommending actions to prevent recurrences. They generally are not mainly concerned with assigning blame, that may be the focus of a separate legal inquiry.

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