Aviation experts call for thinking outside the black box
In the hours after Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into a French mountainside, investigators worried about the condition of the airplane's black boxes. Could the voices and data stored within the heavy metal cases survive an impact so severe that all onboard were lost and the plane itself was shredded into small pieces?
The flight recorders were recovered - the data recorder found late last week - but concerns remain that the force of the crash may have destroyed some crucial data forever. Possibly more important, experts and investigators say, is all the information that was never gathered in the first place - data that could be saved if the technology were updated to modern standards.
Every time you ride in a commercial airliner, you rely on a system of data recorders pioneered more than 60 years ago. Some safety experts believe it can be done better. Introduced on airlines in the 1950s, onboard flight data and voice recorders remain the primary technology for determining the cause of plane crashes and suggesting safety improvements.
The recorders have proven incredibly durable and reliable. Black boxes, a misnomer because the boxes themselves are painted bright orange, were recovered from all but nine crashes in the last 20 years, and in only a handful of cases was data lost or destroyed due to power failures or crash damage.
Still, three recent disasters show the inherent risk of keeping flight data locked inside a crashed airplane. Investigators believe flight recorders from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are lying on the floor of the Indian Ocean, 15,000 feet down. Retrieving them from such depths might prove impossible. It took two months to find the data and voice recorders from Yemenia Flight 626, which crashed into the Indian Ocean in June 2009; retrieving the boxes from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean the same month, took two years.
"It makes no sense to have two sets of recorders go to the bottom of the ocean," said Jim Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates plane crashes, from 1994 through 2001.
Leaders in the commercial aviation industry have argued for years about the best ways to communicate information about aircraft to the people who need it. That data can be used in a number of ways. During normal flight, it can communicate a plane's location and any mechanical issues to airline officials on the ground, helping them track their fleet and schedule maintenance work.
During abnormal or unsafe flight, more data might enable airline workers or air traffic controllers to help the pilots land the plane safely. And during a crash, additional data can speed the response from search and rescue crews, help investigators better understand the problem and improve the industry's attempts to weed out vulnerabilities and improve safety.
The need to respond quickly to a crash was highlighted by the crash of Yemenia Flight 626. Dozens of people survived the initial impact, investigators learned. But by the time rescuers finally found the debris field, only one person, a 13-year-old girl, was still alive.
"Wherever you are - the North Pole, the middle of the Pacific - if you have the location, you no longer need to search for a downed aircraft," said Blake van den Heuvel, director of air programs for DRS Technologies, a Canadian firm that makes advanced flight recorders. "You can send rescue crews only, and they can get there quickly."
And even in this era of big data, top crash investigators believe there are still improvements that would help them reap more flight data and save lives. While some of the new flight data technologies may require years of study by the Federal Aviation Administration before they become required equipment on airliners, each of them is already installed and functioning on aircraft used around the world.
"These concepts are known," said Mike Poole, a former crash investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and one of the world's foremost experts on flight recorders. "We have talked about some of them for decades. But the industry moves slowly."
No cockpit video
In the Germanwings crash - as with any other air disaster - French investigators have no cockpit video to determine the co-pilot's mental or physical state as the plane hurtled toward the mountains. All they have are recorded sounds of his breath and his actions to increase airspeed to determine he was alive and conscious during the last few moments. Across the industry, planes are not equipped to take video in the cockpit.
"We have cameras at 7-Eleven, at Wal-Mart," Hall said. "And yet we fail to have cameras in the cockpit as part of the black box."
The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended since 2000 that the Federal Aviation Administration require video cameras in cockpits. The FAA encourages airlines to install cameras, but so far it has refused to require such equipment.
The FAA wrote in a letter to the board in 2012 that it has "no way of estimating the number of lives that could be saved or the number of future accidents that could be prevented with the use of this additional data."
The powerful Air Line Pilots Association union opposes cockpit video.
"Cameras in the cockpit will not prevent an accident," according to a statement from the organization, because video images "are subject to misinterpretation."
The more information the better, Poole counters.
"We have talked about it for decades," he said. "It is dirt cheap. Just stick a Go-Pro in there, for God's sake."
Meanwhile, the FAA has made other technologies mandatory. A rule took effect last month that made it easier to find black boxes underwater by boosting the battery life of transponder beacons from 30 to 90 days and tweaking the frequency to travel farther underwater.
And starting next year, all new airliners will be required to carry two sets of voice and data recorders, one in the tail and another in the nose, under new rules from the International Civil Aviation Organization. The organization, an arm of the United Nations that regulates airliners worldwide, also will require all planes flying over remote parts of the ocean to report their position every 15 minutes starting in November 2016.
One ping every 15 minutes still leaves a search area up to 1,000 square miles in a crash, however. Some experts say planes should communicate much more often.
"A signal every minute means you can locate a downed aircraft to within six nautical miles," DRS Technologies' van den Heuvel said.
Two technologies already exist to accomplish that. The older one, called a "deployable" black box, has been used on U.S. Navy planes since the 1960s, Hall said. When sensors along the fuselage detect the skin of the plane is striking water or ground, the black box detaches from the aircraft.
This allows it to fly clear of the debris field, reducing damage caused by impact, fire and falling debris. In an ocean crash, the deployable black box floats to the surface and transmits a locator beacon. Airbus, one of the world's largest aircraft manufacturers, has said it will begin installing such devices on planes soon.
"On land, if the deployable recorder lands just 200 feet from the main wreckage, it escapes a catastrophic fire, said van den Heuvel, whose company's recorders have been installed on all of the Navy's F-18 fighter jets. "In the ocean, nobody really likes the idea of going to 13,000 feet under the water to get a black box."
A competing technology involves beaming black box data to satellites and on to the ground. The streaming service already is working on 400 planes operated by 40 different airlines, according to FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, which manages it. If a problem occurs, such as a blown engine or loss of cabin pressure, the system starts sending bursts of data almost continuously.
But the system is not perfect in a crash. It is dependent on power from the engines and a line-of-sight connection to the satellite, both of which may be lost if the plane is careening out of control, said Graham Ingham, operations director for FLYHT Aerospace Solutions.
"If you lose connectivity to the satellite, you can lose a lot of data," Poole said. "So why would I do that for the once-in-a-blue moon case when I can't get the recorder?"
Ingham counters that even if the system disconnects in the final seconds of a crash, the data still can speed up recovery efforts and help investigators determine the cause. For his part, Poole sees value in a system that allows ground controllers to interrogate an aircraft's computers while in flight. This would help airlines diagnose mechanical problems, and identify rogue pilots.
"This is all doable today," Poole said. "We have the technology. We don't do it because there's no requirement to do it."