FAA Mandates Black Box Upgrade

Usually orange in color to make it easier to find in the event of a crash, the Black Box, containing a cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder, has proven invaluable in analyzing the cause of many airplane disasters. Some nine years after the National Transportation Safety Board put forth recommendations for the improvement of the Black Box, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is mandating that existing equipment be replaced with more up-to-date technology.

Current cockpit voice recorders capture 15 to 30 minutes of the audio environment in the flight deck of an aircraft. This typically includes the signals of the microphones and earphones of the pilot and co-pilot’s headsets as well as an area microphone positioned in the roof of the cockpit. The new FAA mandate requires that cockpit voice recorders capture at least the last two hours of cockpit audio and must be able to continue recording for a minimum of eleven minutes after the main power supply is disrupted. Also, solid state technology must replace the easily damaged magnetic tape which is currently in use.

The digital flight data recorder is used to record specific performance parameters of an airplane, such as speed, altitude and jet engine performance. The new FAA ruling mandates that digital flight data recorders must record 25 hours of flight data.

Based on the cost that would be incurred, the FAA has decided against the recommendation of having two Black Boxes – one close to the cockpit and the other as far as possible in the rear of the aircraft – which would increase the likelihood of finding an intact Black Box in the event of a crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board has also recommended the video recording of cockpit activities. Aircraft disaster investigators believe that this would be invaluable in determining the cause of airplane crashes. However, a number of pilot groups are opposed to the use of cockpit video cameras and the FAA is not prepared to make them mandatory at this time. Egypt Air Flight 990, which crashed into the sea in October 1999, has been presented as an example of an incident where video recordings would have been extremely helpful. National Transportation Safety Board Investigators determined that the probable cause of the crash was the co-pilot’s flight control inputs – he intentionally flew into the sea. The Egyptian Aviation Authority disagreed with this finding and presented several alternative theories relating to mechanical malfunction of the aircraft, as well as a theory that the flight, which was carrying 33 Egyptian army officers, was sabotaged. The presence of a cockpit video recording may have been the deciding factor in this controversial matter.

The new FAA rule regarding the upgrading of Black Boxes applies to airplanes and helicopters with 10 or more seats. New aircraft are already being fitted with the updated equipment, and existing commercial airplanes have until 7 March 2012 to ensure that their equipment is upgraded.

In addition to providing critical information to assist investigators in determining the cause of a crash, the Black Box helps experts to find ways to overcome problems in order to prevent future accidents – all in an effort to make flying safer for everyone.