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June 9th, 2009
10:12 AM ET

Expert: Replace ‘black boxes’ with new technology

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Clive Irving tells CNN that new technologies could replace existing flight data recorders."]

24 victims from Air France Flight 447 have been pulled from the sea so far. The number one priority according to the Brazilian military is recovering the bodies, but searchers are also desperately looking for the flight data recorders before time runs out. The area they’re concentrating on is about the size of Nebraska, almost 80,000 square miles.

Clive Irving says the daunting task of finding the so-called black boxes should be a wake-up call for doing away with this “antiquated technology.” Irving is the editor of Condé Nast Traveler magazine and specializes in aviation reporting. He joined John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Tuesday.

John Roberts: Brazilian authorities released a photo of the vertical stabilizer from Air France 447. It was found yesterday. It’s eerily similar, if you remember, to American Airlines 587 where they pulled the entire vertical stabilizer out of Jamaica Bay.

Clive Irving: In fact, it looks just like a plastic model assembly kit where you clip the vertical stabilizer on the fuselage and if you pull it off…it's an extraordinarily clean break there.

Roberts: And the fact that it is a clean break and it seems to be pretty much intact, does that give you a thought as to how this plane may have come down?

Irving: I think I’d be very wary to make a connection between the two things. Remember, this is a composite, not a metal vertical stabilizer. So the whole physics of the thing and how it shears off might be very different to the circumstances of an all metal plane.

Roberts: With American Airlines Flight 587, the pilots over-corrected. They put too much pressure on it and it snapped right off. We know the weather was bad in the area this aircraft was flying through.

Irving: Well yes it was. It was very bad. But I think the wake-up call here is the most significant thing, is we had our eyes pointed to a completely new technology that we almost didn't realize was there because the only clues that we have so far since this crash came from the uploaded data, the 24 messages sent to the maintenance center at Air France. That's all we've got to go on at the moment.

Roberts: Because the flight data recorders are at the bottom of the ocean. It could be as deep as 15,000 to 20,000 feet.

Irving: And we’ve never had that to rely on before. This is the first time this kind of information has been available or invoked. Which points, I think, to the fact that there is a parallel technology waiting to be employed. The information highway is already there in the sky; the communication satellites that you upload this information to. All we need now is to improve the messenger, that’s the system on the plane that collects all the data and sends it up.

Roberts: So you’re suggesting rather than relying on the so-called black boxes using real-time data streaming such as NASA uses with the shuttle?

Irving: Yeah, well in fact, this is a good example of something that works very well until it doesn’t. These data recorders always worked well in the past. They’re very efficient. They collect a lot of data. But then you get a situation where the black boxes weren't accessible. That wouldn't be a problem if you were able to upload the information. It's one step away from being able to make more sophisticated readings on the plane itself and transmit that stuff. The more information you can get about this and the faster you can get it in any aircraft situation is very valuable… because we're all speculating now the various theories of what might have happened, speculation is a very dangerous thing. We need to know.

Roberts: So instead of all of these parameters being recorded on the flight data recorder, if they were being uploaded and sent to the home base, you'd know what was going on with the aircraft at any given time.

Irving: Yeah, the standard right now for the black boxes is 88 parameters. In fact, until seven years ago, it was only 29. So we got 24 from [Air France 447]. That’s a short distance from 24 to 29. If we can get this digital system up to the same level – in fact, I don't see why we couldn't have both. Leave the black boxes in there and then add this. Also put it in the areas of the world where it's most important like this. You don't have to roll it out everywhere at once. Just dedicate satellites and the systems to those areas of the ocean where planes are likely to disappear.

Roberts: What about the cockpit voice recording? Would you upload that as well? If you have all of these thousands of planes flying around, can you handle that amount of data?

Irving: I think you can. You can handle any amount of data now. If you look at the cell phone system…It's very similar…Cell phone signals bouncing back and forth…

Roberts: A lot of people are talking about this. We’ll see if there's some move in this direction.

Irving: It’s a wake-up call.

Filed under: Technology • Transportation
soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Dennis F

    I am going back to the subject of this story, the Flight Data Recorders (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVR).

    Mr. Irving has a good idea but I am not certain that he fully understands the communications problems that would be involved here. There is a major difference between the cell phone system and a system that would provide real-time data for all the aircraft in flight at any given time. A single cell phone tower will only handle a limited number of phone conversations within its own limited range. Those conversations are then relayed from the cell phone tower through the cell phone network via fiber optics or microwave links.

    The fiber optics cables do not use up any of the broadcast (over the air) bandwidth and are high speed land lines. Microwave links do consume bandwidth, but they use high gain antennas that transmit in a directional manner rather than broadcasting in an omni directional pattern like a TV or radio station would broadcast. The directional broadcast of a microwave link allows many more signal paths to be used for any given transmission frequency and is a means of conserving bandwidth.

    An airplane in flight that is broadcasting using an omni directional antenna has a much longer range than is usually associated with a cell phone. In fact, at an altitude of 10,000 meters (~33,000 ft), the airplane has a distance to the horizon of about 557 km (223 mi). This is 50 to 100 times the effective range of a cell phone and the number of airplanes that would be in the reception field of a given ground station would be very large. The over the air bandwidth requirements of a real-time aircraft data system would be far more that a cell type system could handle. Even the Iridium satellite system would be overloaded by such a demand on its available bandwidth.

    Even if the aircraft were limited to transmitting real-time data while they were over water the bandwidth requirements would be overly large.

    On the other hand, if an aircraft only transmitted data when certain criteria were met that triggered an emergency condition, and then continued to transmit for as long as the emergency condition existed (or the ability to transmit was lost), then all the information that was being recorded by the FDR and CVR could be transmitted. There would be no bandwidth problem because instead of thousands of airplanes trying to transmit their data at once, no more than a handful of planes might attempt to transmit at one time. It might even be useful to have such a system transmit the 5 of 10 minutes of data that was recorded just prior to the emergency event, if possible.

    You would still need to work out such details as to who the recipient of the data would be, what events would indicate an emergency, etc, but such a system could augment the FDR and CVR on board the aircraft. Note that I said augment…not replace.

    Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at such a system. The ACARS system has shown that such a system could be feasible, but it also has shown that the limited information sent by the ACARS system is not enough to really help in an accident investigation when the FDR and CVR have yet to be recovered.

    June 23, 2009 at 8:56 pm |
  2. Dennis F


    The only time that an aircraft exhibits ‘constant’ flight characteristics is when it is sheltered in the hanger. While it sits there in that hanger its flight characteristics may be evaluated using a model with static (constant) flight characteristics. Once it leaves that hanger the model changes to one with dynamic (non-constant) flight characteristics.

    For example, when an aircraft flies into icing conditions and ice builds up on the skin of that aircraft, it only takes about the equivalent ice to a sheet of coarse sandpaper on the leading edge and upper surface of the wing before the lift is reduced by about 30% and the drag is increased by about 40%.

    If you try to use a static model of the aircraft’s flight characteristics to calculate the aircraft’s airspeed you are going to find yourself with very large errors before you know what hit you.

    Before you start designing your GPS based airspeed system, you might want to educate yourself about the problems you will be facing. The following links will help you begin that education with the phenomenon known as icing.

    The first one is a good pdf that will introduce you to the hazards that icing represents.

    The next one is an online training course from NASA that explains icing, how it is caused, what its affects are, and ways to recover if caught by it.

    As to using the GPS system, you may want to familiarize yourself with how it works before you start designing a GPS based system that replaces the Pitot/Static system to provide an indication of Airspeed. The following link will give you an excellent tutorial of its operation.

    There is one thing that you should understand about the GPS system. The signal level of the SPS (Standard Positioning System – used by civilians) in the Earth’s atmosphere is set to be no less than -130 dBm, and is expected to be no greater than -124 dBm. This is significant because in the 2 MHz bandwidth used by the SPS a GPS receiver will have thermal noise levels of about -111 dBm at room temperature. This means that the satellite signal can be as much as 19 dB below the receiver’s own thermal noise level. If it were not for the fact that the GPS utilizes digital spread spectrum techniques to provide enough process gain to draw the signal out of the noise the GPS system would not work with received signal levels as weak as they are.

    What this is all leading to is the fact that it would not take a very powerful transmitter for someone to overpower the satellite signal on a local basis and provide the aircraft with totally false GPS data. That means that your system could be easily exploited by a terrorist to cause an aircraft to believe that its airspeed was whatever the terrorist wanted it to think it was.

    Can you spell C-R-A-S-H?

    With that said…..As long as the aircrew takes the time to do their pre-flight checks properly, they will know that the Pitot tube is not clogged with insects, or that the sytatic ports are not covered with masking tape. If they are in conditions that might produce icing they will ensure that they are following the proper anti-ice procedures and turn their Pitot heater on. At least with that Pitot tube provided them with their indicated airspeed, no one can crash them by remote control from 20 miles away.

    June 23, 2009 at 9:20 am |
  3. Kevin SC


    “I am still trying to figure out how any of the parameters that would be used to calculate your velocity could be used to tell you your actual AIRSPEED.”

    Apply a force to an object that exceeds its resistance to motion and the object will move. Apply more force and it will move faster. An airplane is an object, the forces generated by its engines make it move. Generate more force, it will move faster. The forces generated by its engines are a function of their rotational speed, fuel consumption, air density, and similar parameters, all of which can be monitored with existing sensors that are both robust and accurate; so a plane’s applied force can be well quantified. In flight a plane’s resistance to motion is a function of its size, shape, skin dynamics and so forth, all of which are constant, can be characterized, and defined; so a plane’s resistance to motion can also be well quantified. Knowing the force and resistance one can compute its velocity, which in this case is air speed, and should match what the Pitot tubes report within some reasonable margin of error.

    It doesn’t matter how fast or which way the ambient air is moving, the plane’s airspeed will be determined by its resistance and the forces pushing it. Look to the extremes and this still holds true. Assume the engines are shut down entirely and the plane is falling. With no force from its engines the plane’s resistance and attitude will determine its rate of decent at its characteristic rate, which still maps to airspeed. Look at this with a headwind, tailwind, side wind, or no wind and the same rules apply.

    Ambient wind speed will effect the plane’s ground speed however, and that can be determined with some accuracy using GPS. So, once you know the plane’s calculated air speed, and you know the GPS's calculated ground speed, the difference between the two can be used to compute the ambient wind speed as well as wind direction. None of this will tell you where you are since none of this has anything to do with navigation, this all just pertains to flight and serves to confirm what the Pitot tubes report. This is important because otherwise as you point out, “Unfortunately, those Pitot tubes and static ports are all you have to give you the indicated airspeed.”

    The value in doing this is that Pitot tubes offer realtime and real world information about air speed, which again as you point out is necessary, even critical for maintaining proper flight. However, Pitot tubes are inherently unreliable and when their output is way off the mark the results can be catastrophic. Calculated airspeed won’t be as accurate or as responsive as properly working Pitot tubes, but it will be well within the margin of error one might expect from impaired Pitot tubes, and thus would mean the difference between continued flight or a stall. At the very least it would offer pilots some warning that a gross out of bounds condition exists and offer reason to suspect that the Pitot tubes are malfunctioning. A further value in this approach is that it relies on sensors that are widely available, no new hardware development is needed to do this, in fact most if not all the parameters required are already being recorded anyway. In addition, despite the number of sensory inputs, none of this involves high speed data, therefore none of it is beyond the capacity of today’s real time processors. Also, all these computations can be done onboard, none of it needs to be transmitted anywhere, however, the resulting output could be, and should, captured by the onboard recorders for later analysis if needed.

    In the event this all sounds too complex consider that many of today’s automobiles are equipped with systems that are far more advanced than this. It’s common these days to drive a car that monitors fuel consumption, power demand, and even road conditions, and recommends changes to your driving behavior based on similar calculations. Yes there are variables, modeling and empirical analysis would be needed, software development would be required, very likely dedicated processors would be called for, as would additional wiring, all of which in the big picture is trivial.

    All I’m saying here is that the safe operation of an aircraft doesn’t need to depend exclusively on Pitot tubes whose integrity is known to be questionable. In the past that may have been the case. Given the sensor and processor technologies available now it no longer is.

    June 18, 2009 at 3:08 pm |
  4. Dennis F


    I am still trying to figure out how any of the parameters that would be used to calculate your velocity could be used to tell you your actual AIRSPEED.

    The importance of airspeed has little to do with navigation, but a lot to do with keeping the airplane in stable flight. Unfortunately, those Pitot tubes and static ports are all you have to give you the indicated airspeed (IAS) of the aircraft and the IAS is what gives you your V-speeds. There is no GPS or other method that you can use to get your V-speed, this must be done using the Pitot tube and Static port.

    To put it as simply as possible, If you are heading down the runway for departure with a 40 knot tailwind and you rotate when your GPS (or any other calculated velocity) tells you that you are at V2 instead of waiting till the Pitot tube/static port tells you that you are at are going to have a very short flight....a very short flight indeed.

    As to the use of real-time flight information....

    I see no point in replacing the 'black boxes' in aircraft with any type of 'real-time' flight parameter transmission. Such a system would simply require too much bandwidth to be practical. Even a system that had each plane transmit routine information once a second has its drawbacks.

    For you really want a terrorist to be able monitor these transmissions and know where each airplane in the sky is in real time on a routine basis???

    Yes, you can encrypt the data, but with so many aircraft having to have the encryption seed, it is very hard to control access to that seed and the terrorist can easily get it.

    On the other hand, the lessons learned from Air France Flight 447 show that the ACARS system can effectively augment the 'black boxes' aboard the aircraft by sending critical data when conditions merit.

    If it had not been for the ACARS transmissions, there would be no way of knowing with any certaintly that there was a problem with the Pitot tube/static port system of the aircraft until the FDR data could be recovered.

    The point is, that ACARS system is already there, in use and does not require the addition of another $500,000 worth of electronics equipment to use.

    By the way. My understanding is that one of the last ACARS transmissions from Flight 447 gave the aircraft location as 3°34′40″N 30°22′28″W. Provided that those coordinates were based on accurate navigational info from the aircraft's navigational system they would seem to be good to ~30 meters, which is approximately what one second of arc in latitude represents (and one second in longitude, when near the equator).

    From that point, because it was unknown how far the aircraft travelled before crashing it would be very difficult to determine the crash point. Add to that the fact that ocean currents could move any floating debris hundreds of miles in just a few days ( 2 knots for 2 days = 96 miles) and you have a very large area of ocean to search, even though you knew the aircraft location within 30 meters when the aircraft was at 30,000 ft.

    As to whether the Pitot tube was actually at fault, we will have to wait on the FDR and CVR data to find out. One thing that is telling from the messages though is that the flight mode was shifted to 'alternate law', which is a strong indication that the aircrew had to push the controls beyond the normal flight envelope of the aircraft.

    This is reminiscent of Chinese Airlines Flight 006 in 1985. They suffered an engine flameout and when the autopilot automatically disconnected they initially failed to correct for yaw. This led to a near vertical dive and they had too overstress and damage the horizontal tail surfaces in order to recover from it by pulling the aircraft up at a 5.5 G rate. That was twice the aircrafts design limits.

    June 13, 2009 at 11:27 pm |
  5. Kevin SC

    Dennis F, thanks for differentiating air speed and ground speed, point well taken. I’m still not clear on how that effects the issue though. As I understand Pitot tubes they are by their nature unreliable. Ice, water, bugs, any minor damage or physical aberration at all and their accuracy is compromised. They work fine so long as they’re in perfect condition, which in the real world makes them a risky sensor type. As you say though, they do measure true airspeed, in which regard I should have been more thoughtful about suggesting they be eliminated. Rather they should be verified by a secondary means.

    Since an aircraft’s aerodynamic characterization can be known so too can its drag coefficient. At the same time virtually every parameter of engine status is known, throttle position, rotational speed, fuel consumption, and power developed. Factor in altitude, pitch, rate of change, crunch the numbers and you’ve got calculated velocity. The difference between that and GPS speed should produce a reasonable proximity to what the Pitot tubes are reporting. Yes there are various steps and yes there are several input values, but the data required can all be obtained from existing sensors which are all more reliable than Pitot tubes. From a processing standpoint these calculations are trivial, none of this involves high speed data. In fact every automobile made these days performs systems checks that go well beyond what we’re talking about here. To extend that analogy, your car may have a speedometer, but your car does not watch your speedometer to know how fast it’s going. Compare this approach to a faulty Pitot tube reporting an airspeed that’s three times what the aircraft is actually doing and as you say, “it’s a stall and crash.”

    As for transmitting position data I did not mean to imply that should be done to the exclusion of either data recorder, nor that it involve large transfers. Rather I was suggesting something along the lines of one fix per second. Even at 500 mph a 1Hz transfer rate offers a resolution to within 800 feet. Compared that to the initial search area, described as being about the size of Nebraska, and this would be a vast improvement, while still trivial for existing communications technology.

    LHutchison, I don’t believe the lack of these solutions indicates a casualty of any cost/profit analysis. I suspect the underlying technologies simply developed at their own pace and in response to their own motives. Along the way they became available but as they did nobody thought to integrate them into an onboard diagnostic system. It’s not that this was all done before and rejected by cost accountants, it was just never done in the first place. Also however, I’m not convinced the Pitot tube will prove to be the big smoking gun. Given the extremely violent conditions this aircraft encountered I can more easily believe something just tore loose. Yes I know Airbus says that shouldn’t happen but maybe a strap broke and all the cargo suddenly shifted. Who knows, we need the data recorders...

    June 13, 2009 at 1:28 am |
  6. jack

    A ton of ways to improve things, but as usual also a ton of idiots blocking these things from taking place.

    June 13, 2009 at 1:21 am |
  7. Dennis F


    Connexion by Boeing???

    You failed to mention the fact that the equipment required to be installed aboard an Airplane for that system cost $500,000 per plane and added quite a bit of weight.

    Lets see.....there were about 20,700 Commercial aircraft over 60,000lb MGW (excluding airframes leased by the military or built by CIS/USSR) in operation in 2007 worldwide. At $500,000 per airframe, you would want to spend over $10 BILLION (just for the equipment) in order to recover the FDR and CVR data from those extremely rare crashes where the 'Black Boxes' would either not be recovered, or would be destroyed. It would cost far less to lease the 'Glomar Explorer' everytime a plane crashed into the ocean.

    Before anyone complains with that stupid refrain "If it saves one life, its worth every penny spent', let me say this. If you can improve the reliability of the 'Black Box' concept for less, you could use the money you save to actually save lives, not electronics equipment.

    The FAA proposal for upgrades to the FDR/CVRs will cost $19,000 per airframe, which will leave a lot more money left for other important lifesaving features.

    June 11, 2009 at 6:57 pm |
  8. Dennis F

    In response to Kevin SC.

    What happens when your GPS tells you that you are doing 150 Kts and you don't have that Pitot tube and static tube to tell you that your AIRSPEED is only 75 Kts because you are flying in a 75 knot tailwind?

    What happens is that if you don't know your AIRSPEED, you will STALL and crash.

    That GPS is fine for navigation, but it will not tell you the AIRSPEED. That 'antique' Pitot tube is not so antique as you may think.

    As for replacing the FDR and CVR with a real-time satellite link.

    At the time I am writing this, there are about 4500 aircraft in flight over the USA, according to ‘Flight Tracker’.

    The problem will be apparent when I tell you that an Iridium satellite can only handle about 1100 channels with a data rate of about 3.8 Kbit/sec. The newer FDRs will record over 1000 parameters and would require about 12.5 Kbit/sec. Each of those newer FDRs would require the bandwidth of 3.25 Iridium channels. The CVR would need at least another 3.8 Kbit/sec (the higher the rate the better the quality) so at minimum, each aircraft would require 4.25 channels of the 1100 channels that each satellite can handle.

    That would mean that each satellite could handle 244 Aircraft. In order to handle the FDR and CVR data from those 4500 aircraft currently over the USA, it would take 18 Iridium satellites. Unfortunately, there would never be 18 Iridium satellites in view over the US at any given time.

    Even if the system were only used when the aircraft was over the ocean, when it might have some benefit over the current FDR and CVR technology in case of a crash in deep ocean, the minute rates for using the Iridium system runs about $1 per minute for a normal channel, so each aircraft would be charged about $4.25 per minute for this service while in flight. An eight hour flight over the water would cost the airline an additional $2040 just for the satellite time.

    The FDR and CVR will have to remain in the aircraft anyway, because they will still be required in case the expensive satellite data relay system fails.

    By the way, if there are 1000 transoceanic flights a day and each one costs $2040 for satellite time, in a year the satellite charges would be over $744 Million. The loss of crash data from one flight every three years is not enough to justify the $2 BILLION additional expense over those three years.

    Of course, someone who would rely on a GPS receiver to tell them their AIRSPEED is not going to understand anyway…..

    June 11, 2009 at 3:35 pm |
  9. LHutchison

    Just really worried that some people might have made it out alive... If you look at some of the footage they have when they transport those bodies, those look like whole bodies... I wonder if some people made it out alive from this horrible catastrophe to only pass away in the middle of the ocean without any aid from anywhere.. we took too long to find them. Really horrible to think about what they all went through, I am in total shock.. This accident should not have happened.. Just reading some of the comments preceding this one, about pitot tubes, and the possibility of implementing GPS for communications but none of the airlines have .. really worries me how outdated the whole system is.. To think that the airlines might not really put safety first, and opt for their bottom line by measuring cost vs potential losses and just go with the latter rather than spending on safety measures – it is so scary to me,.. i wonder if that is standard practice for all airlines ..

    June 9, 2009 at 11:26 pm |
  10. Kevin SC

    What I’m concerned about is that there are still places in the world where a plane’s exact position can be unknown to air-traffic-control. Particularly since several minutes of flight systems data was transmitted just before the loss of 447 it’s seems amazing to me that it’s location wasn’t included in that data stream. I’m also shocked to know that the aircraft’s onboard computer was getting it’s speed information from Pitot tubes rather than GPS. Talk about antiquated. Neither of these conditions should exist and neither require new technology development to rectify. So why have these shortcomings not been addressed before now?

    June 9, 2009 at 1:20 pm |
  11. William Tovar

    I think flotation devices would work only if there were no obstructions impeding the resurfacing of the device. Black boxes are typically inside the plane to prevent extensive damage in the event of a crash. If the device was inflated in the airplane, it is likely to get caught by the plane's structure, or by debris on the ocean floor. The smartest thing to do is to collect telemetry data and store it on dedicated servers. Space should not be an issue. The only thing I can see being very costly, is retrofitting all the airplanes and putting satellite or other systems in place to support this.

    June 9, 2009 at 1:19 pm |
  12. Mark Primavera

    I'll take the train or least I don't have to scream for the minute or more before I crash into the ocean.

    June 9, 2009 at 1:04 pm |
  13. caleb

    If I understand correctly, whenever there is a malfunction in certain systems in a plane there is an automatic message sent to a maintenance center. At least on transoceanic flights, does that system report include current GPS location? True, a system malfunction doesn't necessarily mean the plane will crash. However, it seems like coordinates would reduce the search/rescue area to a much more practical size.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:29 pm |
  14. David

    Once again, folks: the bandwidth is not unlimited. Streaming telemetry is not an option....certainly some information is available and is currently being sent, but the capacity to stream the parameters they are talking about and voice recording, etc...just isn't there...or it is very expensive. How much does putting up a dedicated satellite cost? How much does each plane cost to retrofit? Who pays for it? The passengers, that's who.

    And I worked on the Iridium project....extremely slow data rates (~ 3K B/secs) and the fact that it is owned by the US government (Iridium went bankrupt and the gov bought the assets) and used by it's classified agencies....also the fact that the handsets/modems cost in the neighborhood of $2-3K makes it impractical.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm |
  15. John

    Telemetry from commercial aircraft in lieu of black boxes has its problems too. In the case of AF 447, the black box went down at sea where it is difficult to recover. Had Telemetry been employed, who is to say that the signals required to analyze this situation would have been transmitted and recorded? At sea, the options are limited to frequency spectrums that are either earth following (like the low frequency AM band) or satellite technology. In either case thunderstorm activity is sufficient to block or distort the transmission.

    There are 40,000 thunderstorms per day on the earth. The NTSB reports include cases where commercial airliners have ventured into thunderstorms that could have blocked telemetery but from which black boxes have been recovered. Any technology has its limitations and is prone to failure in a given set of circumstances.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:18 pm |
  16. Stu

    Don’t bet on the break-away theory just yet. How would it explain the electrical failures received during that transmission?

    I thought flight recorders were designed to withstand a forward motion crash impact. How much time would a "real-time" recorder have at the moment of impact with a mountain?

    Publish in the late '50's or early ‘60’s, Robert J. Serling (brother of writer extraordinaire, Rod Serling) wrote a book called "The probable Cause." It was an intense study of how the CAB (predecessor to the NTSB) investigated air disasters. There were no flight recorders back then.

    Plainview, NY

    June 9, 2009 at 12:16 pm |
  17. Robin

    I say do away with the whole "black box" concept and use the technology we have today to have an aircrafts vital information transmitted (real-time or with a slight delay) to a ground site that can collect and store this information.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm |
  18. PRGuy

    Inflight data streaming would be extremely unreliable when most needed, when everything goes wrong. Radio, TV, Satellite and data are very suceptible to weather, angle of the antenna, etc. Black boxes work until the end, proven so many times. Maybe they can improve the pingers, have another radio system run parallel or install EPIRB's like in the marine industry, however, nothing can replace them.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm |
  19. Greg Ebert

    An ipod could store weeks of flight data, and could easily be made floatable. It would be quite easy and relatively cheap to scatter several of them inside the aircraft where at least one of them should break free and float. It doesn't matter if the "air-pod" burns-up in terrestrial crashes; in those cases the traditional black box will be available.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:09 pm |
  20. woodinvirginia

    Didn't Boeing abandon a His speed internet Connection service module that was mounted to the top of their aircraft that was capable co communication with Satellites while in flight? Well, there is the technology.. already exists..It was called Connexxion. Boeing ran it for 3 years then killed it because it wasn't making enough money.

    TIME to REVIVE it & get it OPERATIONAL.. AGAIN as a Data Recorder.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:03 pm |
  21. Brett

    I'd bet the number of unrecovered black boxes in history is less than the number of dropped calls I've had personally on my cell phone in the past month. Newer technology does not mean better technology.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:03 pm |
  22. Stacy

    Can they not use GPS technology to locate the box? If they can put it in my cell phone and track me down using that signal (should I choose to turn it on), why could they not do that with the black boxes? Or have they done that, and the boxes are just out of range?

    June 9, 2009 at 12:03 pm |
  23. legalalien

    An inflatable system may not be of much help if the boxes are trapped inside or under the plane's fuselage.

    June 9, 2009 at 12:00 pm |
  24. Dan

    I think at a minimum, they should at least employ a system where the plane's GPS coordinates are relayed frequently.

    I agree with a previous poster – may be have a floating buoy where the submerged unit sends sonar pings and the floating piece sends GPS coordinates to some satellite?

    It is possible that Air France has that information as part of its 24 error messages?

    June 9, 2009 at 11:59 am |
  25. RSL

    It would be very difficult to impossible to get black boxes to "float". The problem lies in the fact that they have to be mounted inside of the airframe, meaning whatever happens to that portion of the aircraft is what happens to the black boxes.

    Engineers would need to come up with some kind of black box ejection system to bang them clear of the aircraft past a certain threshold point....which is pretty difficult to conjure considering all the different parameters involved in a dying airplane.

    June 9, 2009 at 11:59 am |
  26. David Lee

    The floating blackbox is a good idea, and it could'nt possibly 'cost' that much. Actually, the cost would probably be relatively low compared to other cost the airlines have. I would think the technology for automatic deployment of a float device has been around for decades. Of course, the float device on the blackbox would'nt be much use if the blackbox is mounted inside the structure of the aircraft.

    June 9, 2009 at 11:58 am |
  27. Gabriel M

    I agree with the black box remarks.. the system is old and needs to be updated. However, if you take a look at the photos of the recovered tail, the break was not a 'clean' one as the tail member itself was broken near the base. In regards to AA Flight 587, the tail connection broke and the tail was found in its entirety, a different situation from Air France Flight 447.

    June 9, 2009 at 11:57 am |
  28. woodinvirginia

    Why NOT mandate every Trans Oceanic Flight to have a separate computer stream this data to a Satellite & backdown to an Earth station &
    save the Data loop in addition to having the physical black box on board.
    How much $$$ have France the US & Brazil going to spend on this 1 recovery & you see that the cost is worth it..

    June 9, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  29. Black Box Designer

    Telemetry has long been discussed with in the Flight Recorder community. The problem is not with the technology but with the regulations and intrastructure that is needed to implement it. Once we send the data up into the sky where does it go from there? To the airplane manufacture? With their agenda to look innocent in the cause of the the incident? To the airline? They don't have an agenda to protect? To a government agency? Which government for the center of the Pacific Ocean? How about to the UN? Then there is the pilot's association that prevents us from down loading "private" cockpit converstations from the voice recorders right now. Because of those regulations a Cockpit Voice Recorder can only be downloaded when the voice recorder is physically removed from the airplane.

    June 9, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  30. Mick

    To the pople suggesting that the black boxes be able to float, we need to also remember the goal is to be able to withstand an impact at up to 700 mph into a rock face and still preserve its contents. Or say the pressure of water at 20,00ft. So we need something that is really strong and less dense than water. Good luck finding such a box.

    June 9, 2009 at 11:52 am |
  31. Jerry

    Definitely one of those smack-your-forehead moments. But in fairness to the airlines, technology is always advancing faster than our ability to apply it. Unfortunately this situation is a tragic case of 20-20 hindsight. But if the industry will apply the lessons learned here, lives can be saved in the future, and some good can come from this tragic loss.

    June 9, 2009 at 11:52 am |
  32. Zoltan

    Yes, it sounds great to "just kick it up to 29 channels of data and have a real-time black box", but there are a lot of hurdles to overcome there, the biggest being the lack of bandwidth available to send that much data wireless from every aircraft in the air. The costs are extremely high, and there are more effective uses for that money from a safety standpoint.

    Regarding the "floating black box", there are a lot of issues why you don't have this. First, it's easier to find a black box on the ocean floor since you know it's at the crash site, it's a lot hard to try and find one floating somewhere out on the ocean. Second, the black box takes a heck of a beating, and it would be rare for a flotation device to survive that kind of abuse. Finally, you run into the problem of just how you engineer a release of the black box from the wreckage, after an accident has already happened. It's just not a technically feasible alternative.

    June 9, 2009 at 11:51 am |
  33. John

    It is a good idea to make the Black Boxes with a floatation device attached. Should have been doen a long time ago. Even better, there has to be a way to have all this data sent via satellite real time somewhere.

    June 9, 2009 at 11:47 am |

    it is time to replace the black box with some medern tech where the jet information and voice data is transmitted automatic to the ground control. This day and age our science can do it......

    June 9, 2009 at 11:40 am |
  35. Jessica

    And we have to remember this costs money, and the airlines are losing money, and they are constantly looking to save money.

    As the world becomes more globally connected, its time we change how we inter-connect. Air travel is something that touches basically every nation, and the nations that do the most travel should put up the most money to make these upgrades.

    It cant and wont be cost effective to pass this upgrade (or most upgrades) down to the consumer. Look at how much it's costing Brazil and France (as well as the US) just to find ONE plane...and will continue to cost! That's why this cant be put on the airlines – it has to be put on us, as nations of peoples, to ensure we are safe.

    June 9, 2009 at 11:32 am |
  36. Russ

    Even with antiquated technology, is it so impossible to make "black boxes" which will float?

    June 9, 2009 at 11:30 am |
  37. frequent lee flying

    There is a world-wide voice and data network available, Iridium, which would have the ability for either real-time or periodic updates between airplanes and their airlines flight control center. Based on weather conditions or any other factor, they could decrease the interval or switch to "real time" mode.

    A move to this sort of technology is a no-brainer, and should not add too terribly much cost per seat to a ticket, perhaps less than $1 per translatlantic flight?

    June 9, 2009 at 11:28 am |
  38. Hugh McGowan

    Why don't the black boxes have an inflatable system that is triggered on contact with water and would then float for days?

    June 9, 2009 at 11:24 am |