Two of the most valuable tools in determining the causes of air disasters are the ‘black boxes’ which are found in every commercial airliner. One is a cockpit voice recorder which tapes the sounds and conversations between crew members in the cockpit. The other is a flight data recorder, which electronically records various bits of information about the state of the aircraft including control positions, engine performance, etc.
The problem, however, is that these boxes are stored in the aircraft. When a plane goes down at sea—like TWA Flight 800 in 1996 or Air France Flight 447 this week—the effort to recover the black boxes can take weeks, if they are ever recovered at all. On September 11, 2001, black boxes from the two planes that were crashed into the World Trade Center towers were destroyed (along with all the data contained therein) in the fires and collapses that followed.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We have the technology to remain constantly connected, even in the most remote places in the world. Commercial aircraft could be equipped with telemetry systems that constantly beam their exact position and all the information typically recorded on flight data recorders to satellites and ground stations, where they could be routed to airline data centers and stored. A live recording from the cockpit voice recorder could also be beamed to remote locations and stored for a set period of time. If this technology were in use today, Air France (for example) could have viewed the flight information for Flight 447 instantaneously after it disappeared—complete with its most recent GPS position and the the flight data & cockpit voice recorder data with which to begin investigating the incident.
With the GPS positions recorded in real-time at a remote location, the search for Flight 447 could have very quickly honed in on the location of the presumed crash. In this case it likely would have made no difference in saving lives, but in other incidents lives might be saved by having this kind of detailed information immediately after a disaster. Furthermore, accident investigation could potentially start and thus finish faster if investigators had immediate access to flight data & cockpit voice recorder information before the oft-delayed physical recovery of black boxes. Where an air disaster occurs due to flawed policy or mechanical problems, identifying the cause and remedying the issue faster will potentially save lives.
It’s time to start using the technology we have at our disposal.