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Secrets Revealed

Does the Black Box really know everything? Captain Lim Khoy Hing explains the importance of this device and discusses the future of Black Box technology.

Flight Recorder

ALL IN THE BOX

On September 8, 2010, a Boeing 737-800 flying from Dubai to Mangalore, India, crashed while carrying out a tricky landing in the city’s tabletop airport – so dubbed for the deep surrounding gorges that leave no room for error, and make it especially difficult for pilots to land and take off during the rainy season. 

     Air crash investigators determined that the pilot had been sleeping prior to the crash. But, how did they know this? The Black Box had the answer. The details – including the sound of the pilot snoring in the cockpit – were captured by its voice recorder. 

     Although the pilot sleeping did not directly cause the Mangalore air crash, it showed that he was tired, and may not have prepared well for the flight that eventually ended in the fatal accident. 

IN THE BEGINNING…

During an air crash investigation, one often hears the term ‘Black Box’ being mentioned by the media. Investigators are always very keen to know if it has been recovered, so that they are able to find out the cause of an accident. 

     The Black Box was first invented by a young Australian scientist who was involved in the accident investigation of the mysterious crash of the world’s first jet plane, the Comet. In 1960, Australia became the first country to make the installation of the Black Box mandatory after an unexplained crash of a plane in Queensland. 

     However, the origin of the term ‘black box’ is uncertain. One explanation dates back to the Second World War where metal boxes containing electronic innovations were added to bomber planes as part of the war strategy. These metal boxes were painted black to prevent reflection. They were referred to as ‘box-of-tricks’ or Black Box back then. 

     After the war, the expression continued to be used in civil aviation. In reality, the Black Box is not black but usually bright orange as it is intended to be spotted easily and recovered after an air accident. This term is more often used by the media and is almost never used technically within the flight safety industry. By regulation, this crucial device must be installed on all commercial aircraft and corporate jets today. 

     The Black Box contains two important equipment: the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the flight data recorder (FDR). The CVR records what the crew say and monitors any sounds that occur within the cockpit. In the beginning, the FAA requirement was that the last recording should be at least 30 minutes, but today, the duration has been extended to two hours. 

     The FDR records the different data of a plane all at once, such as the time, altitude, airspeed and direction the plane is heading. This data is very important in the aftermath of an  accident as this information helps crash investigators figure out what happened before the accident.

Black Box

An engineer fitting in the electronic components and the Black Box of a commercial aircraft.

“The black box was first invented by a young Australian scientist who was involved in the accident investigation of the mysterious crash of the world’s first jet plane, The Comet. In 1960, Australian became the first country to make the installation of the black box mandatory after an unexplained crash of a plane in Queensland.”

LOCATING A BLACK BOX

How would investigators locate the Black Box in the ocean in the aftermath of a plane crash? Each recorder has a device known as an underwater locator beacon fitted to it. The locator would become alive and start transmitting as soon as the recorder is contaminated with water. It has a transmitter that can send distress signals from as deep as 14,000 feet. 

     The recorders are also very durable and are capable of withstanding a fi re of up to about 1,000° Celsius for one hour or 260° Celsius for 10 hours. You might wonder why then would planes not be built to Black Box standards. Well, because they would be so heavy that you’d have to drive them rather than fly in them!  

A READER’S QUERY

A reader once posted a query to me as to why modern planes are still making use of the Black Box when global satellite technology is capable of doing away with it – especially when inflight telemetry, the constant broadcasting of remote data to the ground, has been used so widely in modern car races.  

     This would mean that in the event of an accident, there would be no risk that the voice and data recorder be lost, especially in the ocean, and would probably also mean that far more data could be sent back as compared to the limited storage capacity offered by the Black Box.  

     The reader added that the motor sporting circle has been beaming real-time telemetry back from cars for years. He was working in the technology industry and added that this is not beyond the realm of current possibility, and it seems like such an obvious thing to do.

LIVE BLACK BOX

After the immense cost and time taken to recover the Black Box after the crash of an Air France Airbus A330 over the Atlantic, the ‘live Black Box’ was touted as the solution for future air crash investigations. In the aftermath of the Air France Flight 447 crash, Airbus announced that it would begin studying a system to transmit flight data via air-to-ground links in a commercially viable way. 

     There are many reasons why the ‘live Black Box’ in-flight telemetry data system should be installed in all modern planes, with the exception of the big implementation cost, which has to be borne by the airlines. 

     Data storage is not an issue but data bandwidth is, especially on satellites that would be required to cover the oceanic areas and the poles. It is very expensive, and would cost approximately USD1 per kilobyte. This would be a ‘running’ cost, much like fuel and maintenance as opposed to a one-off charge at the initial outlay when purchasing a plane. Due to the competitive nature of the aviation industry, most airlines would be reluctant to invest in it and dilute their profit – unless it is made mandatory.

     Indeed, the manufacturer of the Bombardier planes has plans to install ‘live Black Box’ in-flight telemetry sometime in 2013. It is believed that this feature will be part of the normal system to be installed in all airplanes in the future. 

     In-flight telemetry, when perfected, would also be useful in saving planes in distress in the future. It would require that the system be capable of detecting when a plane is in trouble. Detailed information could be linked to a pilot or engineer standing by on the ground who would receive data and communicate with the pilots on board – just like the NASA mission control! 

All communicates is recorded by Black Box

Everything that a pilot communicates to the control tower or to her co-pilot and other crew members in the cockpit is recorded by the Black Box.

AIR TRANSAT FUEL LEAK

In August 2001, an Air Transat Airbus A330 suffered a fuel leak that resulted in the loss of both engines. It was fortunate that the crew was able to save the plane by gliding it to land safely at the Azores. All 306 people on board were safe and the plane was undamaged except for some burst tyres.  

     In the above case, it was the human element that aggravated the accident. They were trying to balance the fuel by pumping fuel from the heavy tank to the leaking one. By doing so, they were unconsciously depleting the total fuel on board that resulted in both engines failing.  

     An experienced individual observing the same data may have been able to detect the mistake earlier. In this sense, a streaming data link would be useful.  

KNOWLEDGE FOR THE FUTURE

The importance of the recovery of the Black Box of Air France 447 was fundamental. When it was finally recovered from the ocean about two years later, it enabled the investigators to determine precisely what caused the disaster and be able to make recommendations to prevent future accidents. To overcome the delay in retrieving the data, continuous data streaming would appear to be the answer. 

     This safety innovation is highly feasible. It is merely an improvement of the ‘live Black Box’ telemetry technology. Planes in distress can also make use of this technology to activate ‘mission control’ for help when their internal resources are lacking.  

     The technology is there. It is available. It is now down to the airline industry to make it a legislation and mandate that this be done by law. Until then, the current Black Box technology is still a viable one, and it does the job. It’s just not ‘live’ and ‘streaming’.


AirAsia X Simulator Flight Instructor, Captain Lim Khoy Ling.

     Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to  fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500  flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with AirAsia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at  www.askcaptainlim.com.

Life in the Skies - Everything you want to know about flying

     Capt. Lim’s first book, Life in the Skies, has just been released. You can purchase it on-board all AirAsia and AirAsia X flights, AirAsia Megastore kiosk at LCCT Sepang or on-line at AirAsia Megastore at www.airasiamegastore.com/life-in-the-skies.html. They are also available in all major book stores in Malaysia and Singapore Enjoy the great collection of articles, anecdotal stories and observations of this veteran aviator in this book.

RESOURCES:

  • http://www.phooeytofear.com/ Neil Shearing, Ph.D. (Phooey T

    That was a really interesting article about the “black box” on planes and what improvements could be made to the technology. I liked the real-time data-streaming concept.

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel3sixty Travel 3Sixty

      Glad we could be of help Neil! Always love hearing from our fellow readers. Is there anything you’d like to hear from Captain Lim in the future? Perhaps we can put in a request or two as well :)