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Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Black is the New Box

by Bruce Haring

As seen on TV’s endless discussion of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, everyone is looking for the black box. It would probably help speed things up if more people understood that (a) the box isn’t black and (b) it’s not a box.

Everyone knows that “black box’ is another name for a flight data recorder (also known as an accident data recorder, which indicates that it’s mostly there in case of a whoopsie).

The black box is used to record specific aircraft performance data. It can be supplemented by a cockpit voice recorder, which monitors conversations between cockpit members and air traffic control, along with other sounds. But in general, the black box is focused on collecting aircraft performance data for analyzing what happened in case of a crash. A pilot’s cursing, or otherwise asking what the hell is happening before impact, isn’t considered information of much value.

The black box records the aircraft’s control and actuator positions, engine information, and over 80 other variables. The black box provides anywhere from 17 to 25 hours of data, recorded in short bursts during the flight. They are capable of an impact of 3400 G-forces, and temperatures of over 1,000 °C (1,832 °F), and will generally give off a battery-powered signal for approximately 30 days to help locate the devices.

And in case you were wondering, the box isn’t black —  it’s painted with heat-resistant bright orangepaint for high visibility in wreckage. The box is usually put in the tail section, because most planes go down nose first (making us all wonder why they claim most accidents aren’t pilot error).

Data Collection Has Evolved

The flight recorder was invented around 1939 by two Frenchmen, who took time off from their daily three-hour lunch to contribute something to society. They used photographic film to record what was going on with their planes. It was a crude tactic, and didn’t provide the necessary information to determine exactly what was going on (hey, a close-up of the ground!), but it was a start.

The flight data recorder was improved upon by two inventors in the UK during World War II, when they realized that any data collected needed to survive a crash. They constructed a version that was housed in a steel container, but the data it gathered was limited. The modern prototype of a flight data recorder was created by a Finnish aviation engineer earlier in the 1940s, which used it to help the mighty Finnish Air Force during its battles against the Luftwaffe. Since the brave Finns were mostly shot down, having a flight recorder was viewed as a necessity to determine that, well, the Finnish planes were shot down.

Which leads us to today, and the constant hand-wringing over finding Flight 370’s black box in 10,000 feet of Indian Ocean, based on a few barely-audible “pings” that are going out of business in short order.

What happens when they finally find the black box?  Well, the Federal Aviation Administration grabs a few cold ones, kicks back, and lets a machine sort through the data. There’s so much to cover that a machine can quickly scan and find the anomalies (what, an air speed of 25 miles per hour?).  They then make a conclusion on the cause of the crash based on the black box data, and any other evidence that comes to light (pilot Islamic fanaticism is a definite red flag).

What the 370 search mission has taught us is that black boxes are largely superfluous in a wireless age. Having to trot out to a crash site and recover a box is a 20th Century construction. These days, devices can send information over the air, making the retrieval of a container a needless exercise.

Of course, the black box crisis provides great programming for CNN, which has 24 hours a day to fill. Maybe some enterprising network will sponsor the boxes of the future. After all, next to sex and children in wells, air crash searches are sure-fire ratings enhancers.

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