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A flight recorder is an electronic recording device placed in an aircraft for the purpose of facilitating the investigation of aviation accidents and incidents. Commonly referred to as a black box, there are two common types of flight recorder, the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR). In some cases, the two recorders may be combined in a single unit.
Flight recorders are required to be capable of surviving the conditions likely to be encountered in a severe aircraft accident. For this reason, they are typically specified to withstand an impact of 3400 g and temperatures of over 1,000 °C (1,830 °F) as required by EUROCAE ED-112.
As with many successful devices, probably no single person could be credited with the invention of the flight recorder. One of the earliest and proven attempts was made by François Hussenot and Paul Beaudouin in 1939 at the Marignane flight test center, France, with their "type HB" flight recorder; they were essentially photograph-based flight recorders, because the record was made on a scrolling eight meters long by 88 milimeters wide photographic film. The latent image was made by a thin ray of light deviated by a mirror tilted according to the magnitude of the data to record (altitude, speed, etc.). A pre-production run of 25 "HB" recorders was ordered in 1941 and HB recorders remained in use in French test centers well into the seventies. In 1947, Hussenot founded the Société Française des Instruments de Mesure with Beaudouin and another associate, so as to market his invention, which was also known as the "hussenograph". This company went on to become a major supplier of data recorders, used not only aboard aircraft but also trains and other vehicles. SFIM is today part of the Safran group and is still present on the flight recorder market. The advantage of the film technology was that it could be easily developed afterwards and provides a durable, visual feedback of the flight parameters without needing any playback device. On the other hand, unlike magnetic bands or later flash memory-based technology, a photographic film cannot be erased and recycled, and so it must be changed periodically. As such, this technology was reserved for one-shot uses, mostly during planned test flights; and it was not mounted aboard civilian aircraft during routine commercial flights. Also, the cockpit conversation was not recorded.
Another form of flight data recorder was developed in the UK during World War II. Len Harrison and Vic Husband developed a unit that could withstand a crash and fire to keep the flight data intact. This unit used copper foil as the recording medium with various styli indicating various instruments / aircraft controls which indented the copper foil. The copper foil was periodically advanced at set periods of time therefore giving a history of the instruments / control settings of the aircraft. This unit was developed at Farnborough for the Ministry of Aircraft Production. At the war's end the Ministry got Harrison and Husband to sign over their invention to them and the Ministry patented it under British patent 19330/45. This unit was the forerunner of today's black boxes being able to withstand conditions that aircrew could not.
The first modern flight recorder, called "Mata Hari", was created in 1942 by Finnish aviation engineer Veijo Hietala. This black high-tech mechanical box was able to record all important aviation details during test flights of World War II fighters that the Finnish army repaired or built in their main aviation factory in Tampere, Finland. The "Mata Hari" black box is displayed in the Vapriikki museum in Tampere, Finland.
In 1953 and 1954, a series of fatal incidents involving the de Havilland Comet prompted the grounding of the entire fleet pending an investigation. Australian engineer David Warren, a chemist specializing in aircraft fuels, was involved in a professional committee discussing the possible causes. Since there had been neither witnesses nor survivors, Warren conceived of a crash-survivable method to record not only the instruments' readings, but also the flight crew's conversation, reasoning they would greatly assist in determining a cause and enabling the prevention of future, avoidable accidents of the same type.
Warren, when working with the Defence Science and Technology Organisations' Aeronautical Research Laboratory (Melbourne, Australia), published a 1954 report entitled "A Device for Assisting Investigation into Aircraft Accidents" and built a prototype FDR called "The ARL Flight Memory Unit" in 1957. The first coupled FDR / CVR prototype designed with civilian aircraft in mind, for explicit post-crash examination purposes, was produced in 1958. However, aviation authorities from around the world were largely uninterested. This changed in 1958 when Sir Robert Hardingham, the Secretary of the British Air Registration Board, visited the ARL and was introduced to Warren.
The Aeronautical Research Laboratory allocated Warren an engineering team to develop the prototype to airborne stage. The team, consisting of electronics engineers Lane Sear, Wally Boswell and Ken Fraser developed a working design incorporating a fire and shockproof case, a reliable system for encoding and recording aircraft instrument readings and voice on one wire, and a ground-based decoding device. The ARL system became the "Red Egg", made by the British firm of S. Davall & Son. The "Red Egg" got its name from its shape and bright red color.
In 1965 the units were redesigned and moved to the rear of airplanes to improve the probability of successful data retrieval after a crash.
A "Coding Apparatus For Flight Recorders And The Like" was invented and patented in the United States by James J. "Crash" Ryan, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota from 1931 to 1963; U.S. Patent 2,959,459 was filed in August 1953 and approved on November 8, 1960. Ryan, also the inventor of the retractable seat belt now required in automobiles, began working on the idea of a flight recorder in 1946, and invented the device in response to the 1948 request from the Civil Aeronautics Board for development of a flight recorder as a means of accumulating data that could be used to get information useful in arriving at operating procedures designed to reduce air mishaps. The original device was known as the "General Mills flight recorder". The benefits of the flight recorder and the coding apparatus for flight recorders were outlined by Ryan in his study entitled "Economies in Airline Operation with Flight Recorders" which was entered into the Congressional Record in 1956. In addition, a coding apparatus for flight recorders and the like which maintains a continuing recording of aircraft flight data such as engine exhaust, temperature, fuel flow, aircraft velocity, altitude, control surfaces positions, rate of descent and the like was invented by Ryan in 1959.
A "Cockpit Sound Recorder" (CSR) was independently invented and patented by Edmund A. Boniface, Jr., an aeronautical engineer of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and originally filed with the U.S. Patent Office on February 2, 1961 as an "Aircraft Cockpit Sound Recorder"; the 1961 invention was viewed by some as an "invasion of privacy". Subsequently Boniface filed again on February 4, 1963 for a "Cockpit Sound Recorder" with the addition of a spring loaded switch which allowed the pilot to erase the audio/sound tape recording at the conclusion of a safe flight and landing. Boniface's participation in aircraft crash investigations in the 1940s and in the accident investigation of the loss of one of the wings at cruise altitude on each of two Lockheed Electra turboprop powered aircraft (Flight #542 operated by Braniff Airlines in 1959 and Flight #710 operated by Northwest Orient Airlines in 1960) that led to his wondering what the pilots may have said just prior to the wing loss and during the descent as well as the type and nature of any sounds or explosions that may have preceded or occurred during the wing loss. His patent was for a device for recording audio of pilot remarks and engine or other sounds to be "contained with the in-flight recorder within a sealed container that is shock mounted, fireproofed and made watertight" and "sealed in such a manner as to be capable of withstanding extreme temperatures during a crash fire". The CSR was an analog device which provided a progressive erasing/recording loop (lasting 30 or more minutes) of all sounds (explosion, voice, and the noise of any aircraft structural components undergoing serious fracture and breakage) which could be overheard in the cockpit.
The origin of the term "black box" is uncertain. It is an informal and imprecise term, almost never used within the flight safety industry or aviation. The recorders are generally not black in color, but usually bright orange, as they are intended to be spotted and recovered after incidents.
One explanation comes from the early film-based design of flight data recorders, which required the inside of the recorder to be perfectly dark to prevent light leaks from corrupting the record, as in a photographer's darkroom.
Another explanation of the "black box" name came from a meeting about Warren's "Red Egg", when afterwards a journalist told Warren, "This is a wonderful black box." The unit itself was based on an EMI Minifon wire recorder (originally a 1950s espionage gadget from the west-German manufacterer Protona Monske) fitted into a perspex box firmly screwed together.
Another possible origin of the word is World War II RAF terminology. During the period 1940-1945 new electronic innovations, such as Oboe, GEE and H2S, were added to aircraft (specifically bombers) on a regular basis. The prototypes were roughly covered in hand-made metal boxes, painted black to prevent reflections. After a time any piece of "new" electronics was referred to as the "box-of-tricks" or the "black-box".
A flight data recorder (FDR) (also ADR, for accident data recorder) is an electronic device employed to record any instructions sent to any electronic systems on an aircraft. It is a device used to record specific aircraft performance parameters. Another kind of flight recorder is the cockpit voice recorder (CVR), which records conversation in the cockpit, radio communications between the cockpit crew and others (including conversation with air traffic control personnel), as well as ambient sounds. In this both functions have been combined into a single unit. The current applicable FAA TSO is C124b titled Flight Data Recorder Systems.
The data recorded by the FDR is used for accident investigation, as well as for analyzing air safety issues, material degradation and engine performance. Due to their importance in investigating accidents, these ICAO-regulated devices are carefully engineered and stoutly constructed to withstand the force of a high speed impact and the heat of an intense fire. Contrary to the "black box" reference, the exterior of the FDR is coated with heat-resistant bright orange paint for high visibility in wreckage, and the unit is usually mounted in the aircraft's empennage (tail section), where it is more likely to survive a severe crash. Following an accident, the recovery of the FDR is usually a high priority for the investigating body, as analysis of the recorded parameters can often detect and identify causes or contributing factors.
Modern day FDRs receive inputs via specific data frames from the Flight Data Acquisition Units (FDAU). They record significant flight parameters, including the control and actuator positions, engine information and time of day. There are 88 parameters required as a minimum under current U.S. federal regulations (only 29 were required until 2002), but some systems monitor many more variables. Generally each parameter is recorded a few times per second, though some units store "bursts" of data at a much higher frequency if the data begins to change quickly. Most FDRs record approximately 17–25 hours worth of data in a continuous loop. It is required by regulations that an FDR verification check (readout) is performed annually in order to verify that all mandatory parameters are recorded.
This has also given rise to flight data monitoring programs, whereby flights are analyzed for optimum fuel consumption and dangerous flight crew habits. The data from the FDR is transferred, in situ, to a solid state recording device and then periodically analyzed with some of the same technology used for accident investigations. In other cases the data is downloaded from the aircraft's Quick Access Recorder (QAR), either by transfer to a portable solid state recording device or by direct upload to the operator's headquarters via radio or satellite.
FDRs are usually located in the rear of the aircraft, typically in the tail. In this position, the entire front of the aircraft is expected to act as a "crush zone" to reduce the shock that reaches the recorder. Also, modern FDRs are typically double wrapped in strong corrosion-resistant stainless steel or titanium, with high-temperature insulation inside. They are usually bright orange. They are designed to emit an ultrasonic "ping" from an underwater locator beacon for up to 30 days and can operate immersed to a depth of up to 6,000 meters (20,000 ft).
A cockpit voice recorder (CVR) is a flight recorder used to record the audio environment in the flight deck of an aircraft for the purpose of investigation of accidents and incidents. This is typically achieved by recording the signals of the microphones and earphones of the pilots' headsets and of an area microphone in the roof of the cockpit. The current applicable FAA TSO is C123b titled Cockpit Voice Recorder Equipment.
Where an aircraft is required to carry a CVR and utilizes digital communications the CVR is required to record such communications with air traffic control unless this is recorded elsewhere. As of 2008[update] it is an FAA requirement that the recording duration is a minimum of two hours.
A standard CVR is capable of recording 4 channels of audio data for a period of 2 hours. The original requirement was for a CVR to record for 30 minutes, but this has been found to be insufficient in many cases, significant parts of the audio data needed for a subsequent investigation having occurred more than 30 minutes before the end of the recording.
The earliest CVRs used analog wire recording, later replaced by analog magnetic tape. Some of the tape units used two reels, with the tape automatically reversing at each end. The original was the ARL Flight Memory Unit produced in 1957 by Australian David Warren and an instrument maker named Tych Mirfield.
Other units used a single reel, with the tape spliced into a continuous loop, much as in an 8-track cartridge. The tape would circulate and old audio information would be overwritten every 30 minutes. Recovery of sound from magnetic tape often proves difficult if the recorder is recovered from water and its housing has been breached. Thus, the latest designs employ solid-state memory and use digital recording techniques, making them much more resistant to shock, vibration and moisture. With the reduced power requirements of solid-state recorders, it is now practical to incorporate a battery in the units, so that recording can continue until flight termination, even if the aircraft electrical system fails.
With the advent of digital recorders, the FDR and CVR can be manufactured in one fireproof, shock proof, and waterproof container as a combined digital Cockpit Voice and Data Recorder (CVDR). Currently the CVDR is manufactured by L-3 Communications as well as other manufacturers.
Since the 1970s, most large civil jet transports have been additionally equipped with a "quick access recorder" (QAR). This records data on a removable storage medium. Access to the FDR and CVR is necessarily difficult because of the requirement that they survive an accident. They also require specialized equipment to read the recording. The QAR recording medium is readily removable and is designed to be read by equipment attached to a standard desktop computer. In many airlines, the quick access recordings are scanned for 'events', an event being a significant deviation from normal operational parameters. This allows operational problems to be detected and eliminated before an accident or incident results.
Many modern aircraft systems are digital or digitally controlled. Very often, the digital system will include Built-In Test Equipment which records information about the operation of the system. This information may also be accessed to assist with the investigation of an accident or incident.
The design of today's FDR is governed by the internationally recognized standards and recommended practices relating to flight recorders which are contained in ICAO Annex 6 which makes reference to industry crashworthiness and fire protection specifications such as those to be found in the European Organisation for Civil Aviation Equipment documents EUROCAE ED55, ED56 fiken A and ED112 (Minimum Operational Performance Specification for Crash Protected Airborne Recorder Systems). In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates all aspects of U.S. aviation, and cites design requirements in their Technical Standard Order, based on the EUROCAE documents (as do the aviation authorities of many other countries).
Currently, EUROCAE specifies that a recorder must be able to withstand an acceleration of 3400 g (33 km/s²) for 6.5 milliseconds. This is roughly equivalent to an impact velocity of 270 knots (310 mph) and a deceleration or crushing distance of 450 cm. Additionally, there are requirements for penetration resistance, static crush, high and low temperature fires, deep sea pressure, sea water immersion, and fluid immersion.
EUROCAE ED-112 (Minimum Operational Performance Specification for Crash Protected Airborne Recorder Systems) defines the minimum specification to be met for all aircraft requiring flight recorders for recording of flight data, cockpit audio, images and CNS / ATM digital messages and used for investigations of accidents or incidents. When issued in March 2003 ED-112 superseded previous ED-55 and ED-56A that were separate specifications for FDR and CVR. FAA TSOs for FDR and CVR reference ED-112 for characteristics common to both types.
In order to facilitate recovery of the recorder from an aircraft accident site they are required to be coloured bright yellow or orange with reflective surfaces. All are lettered "FLIGHT RECORDER DO NOT OPEN" on one side in English and the same in French on the other side. To assist recovery from submerged sites they must be equipped with an underwater locator beacon which is automatically activated in the event of an accident.
In the investigation of the 1960 crash of Trans Australia Airlines Flight 538 at Mackay (Queensland) the inquiry judge strongly recommended that flight recorders be installed in all airliners. Australia became the first country in the world to make cockpit-voice recording compulsory.
The United States first CVR rules were passed in 1964 requiring all turbine and piston aircraft with four or more engines to have CVRs by 1 March 1967.
As of 2008[update] it is an FAA requirement that the CVR recording duration is a minimum of two hours, following the NTSB recommendation that it should be increased from its previously-mandated 30-minute duration.
As of 2014[update], flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders are only required on US aircraft that have 20 or more passenger seats, or those that have six or more passenger seats, are turbo-charged, and require two pilots.
For US air carriers and manufacturers, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is responsible for investigating accidents and safety-related incidents. The NTSB also serves in an advisory role for many international investigations not under its formal jurisdiction. The NTSB does not have regulatory authority, but must depend on legislation and other government agencies to act on its safety recommendations.
The NSTB recommended in 1999 that operators be required to install two sets of CVDR systems, with the second CVDR set being "deployable or ejectable". The "deployable" recorder combines the cockpit voice/flight data recorders and an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) in a single unit. The "deployable" unit would depart the aircraft milliseconds before impact, activated by sensors. The unit is designed to "eject" and "fly" away from the crash site, to survive the terminal velocity of fall, to float on water indefinitely, and would be equipped with satellite technology for immediate location of crash impact site. The "deployable" CVDR technology has been used by the U.S. Navy since 1993. The recommendations would involve a massive retrofit program. However, government funding would negate cost objections from manufacturers and airlines. Operators would get both sets of recorders for free: they would not have to pay for the one set they are currently required by law to carry. The cost of the second "deployable/ejectable CVDR" (or "Black Box") was estimated at $30 million for installation in 500 new aircraft (about $60,000 per new commercial plane).
In the United States, the proposed SAFE Act calls for implementing the NTSB 1999 recommendations. However so far the SAFE ACT legislation failed to pass Congress in 2003 (H.R. 2632), in 2005 (H.R. 3336) and in 2007 (H.R. 4336). Originally the "Safe Aviation Flight Enhancement (SAFE) Act of 2003" was introduced on June 26, 2003 by Congressman David Price (NC) and Congressman John Duncan (Tennessee) in a bipartisan effort to ensure investigators have access to information immediately following commercial accidents. On July 19, 2005, a revised SAFE Act was introduced and referred to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Aviation during the 108th, 109th, and 110th congresses.
The NTSB has also asked for the installation of cockpit image recorders in large transport aircraft to provide information that would supplement existing CVR and FDR data in accident investigations. They also recommended image recorders be placed into smaller aircraft that are not required to have a CVR or FDR. The rationale is that what is seen on an instrument by the pilots of an aircraft is not necessarily the same as the data sent to the display device. This is particularly true of aircraft equipped with electronic displays (CRT or LCD). A mechanical instrument is likely to preserve its last indication, but this is not the case with an electronic display. Such systems, estimated to cost less than $8,000 installed, typically consist of a camera and microphone located in the cockpit to continuously record cockpit instrumentation, the outside viewing area, engine sounds, radio communications, and ambient cockpit sounds. As with conventional CVRs and FDRs, data from such a system is stored in a crash-protected unit to ensure survivability. Since the recorders can sometimes be crushed into unreadable pieces, or even located in deep water, some modern units are self-ejecting (taking advantage of kinetic energy at impact to separate themselves from the aircraft) and also equipped with radio emergency locator transmitters and sonar underwater locator beacons to aid in their location.
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 demonstrated the limits of the contemporary flight recorder technology, as physical possession of the flight recorder device is necessary to help investigate the cause of an aircraft incident. Considering the advances of modern communication technology commentators called for flight recorders to be supplemented or replaced by a system for "live streaming" data from the aircraft to the ground. Furthermore commentators called for the battery life of the underwater locator beacons to be extended from 30 to 90 days, the range of the locator to be increased and additionally for the outfitting of civil aircraft with deployable flight recorders, which are commonly used in military aircraft. Previous to MH370 the extension of the battery life has been suggested as "rapidly as possible" by investigators of the Air France Flight 447 crash – the AF447 crash happened in 2009, however it took until 2011 to recover the flight recorders.
The Neue Deutsche Härte band Rammstein's album Reise, Reise is made to look like a CVR; it also includes a recording from a crash. The recording is from the last 1–2 minutes of the CVR of Japan Airlines Flight 123, which crashed on August 12, 1985, killing 520 people; JAL123 is the deadliest single-aircraft disaster in history.
Members of Collective: Unconscious made a theatrical presentation of a play called Charlie Victor Romeo with a script based on transcripts from CVR voice recordings of nine aircraft emergencies. The play features the famous United Airlines Flight 232 that landed in a cornfield near Sioux City, Iowa after suffering a catastrophic failure of one engine and most flight controls.
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