Two Mass. men say they have found long-lost ‘black boxes’ in Bolivia
For two Massachusetts men, what began as a fascination with missing planes and their data recorders a year ago ended with a trip to Bolivia, a potentially ground-breaking discovery, and a flash of Internet fame.
About a year ago, while he researched the vanished 2014 Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, Somerville resident Dan Futrell learned something. Since 1965, crash investigators have failed to recover flight data and cockpit voice recorders — often referred to as “black boxes” — from almost 20 crashed aircraft, including both planes that crashed into the New York City’s Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
But it was another flight that caught Futrell’s eye: Eastern Air Lines Flight 980, which took off from Paraguay for Miami in 1985 but crashed on Mount Illimani in western Bolivia. Crash investigators have long suspected that the plane’s debris landed in a spot that was nearly inaccessible.
Challenge accepted, Futrell said in his blog.
“How is it that there is a place on this Earth that we can’t reach?” Futrell wrote in amazement.
Throughout the following year, he and a friend, Isaac Stoner of Cambridge, decided they would travel to the South American mountain and find the recorders.
“Cheers to living a life of adventure,” Futrell wrote before leaving for Bolivia. Futrell wrote in the blog throughout his on-the-ground preparation and during the trip up the mountain.
“What would it take to hike up Mount Illimani and find a black box that might be buried under feet of snow and ice?” Futrell asked. “Could we travel to La Paz, push ourselves on an otherwise grueling hike, and do something that’s otherwise productive to the world at large, even if marginally so?”
Due to an agreement with Outside magazine, which sent a reporter on the trip, the two men said they could not comment for this story. However, based on the information shared in their blog posts and on social media, it’s clear Futrell and Stoner believe they have accomplished their ultimate goal, after months of training and weeks of hiking in Bolivia.
“We found what we believe to be the flight recorders,” Futrell said in his latest blog post.
If verified, it would be an impressive accomplishment.
During their final ascent up the mountain to the presumed site of the crash, the men had to climb for 15 hours to reach greater than 20,000 feet above sea level in a region plagued by yellow fever, Futrell’s blog states. They were accompanied by a Bolivian cook and a German mountain guide.
In photos shared online, Futrell and Stoner posted images of their finds: mangled rolls of tape, a piece of a wing frame, and an apparent piece of the two recorders. One photo shows “CKPT VO RCDR” written on electrical wires, which they say confirms that the devices they found were data recorders.
“There is more work to do, but we’re happy to say we’ve done what we came to do: located and recovered the recorders of Flight 980,” Futrell wrote on Friday. “We still hope that this trip might provide some answers.”
In a statement provided Sunday to the Globe, Stoner said the group has reached out to authorities to “determine what, if any, information they can get from the metal casings of the recorders” and “determine if any information can be pulled from the tape that we found.”
Either way, both men say the trip to Bolivia accomplished its goals.
Outside of this aerospace treasure hunt, Futrell recently wrote that the men also scaled the mountain to “live a life of adventure, to challenge ourselves physically and mentally, and to come back with a story.”
In that sense, mission accomplished.