The Myth of the Black Box

While searchers scour the Atlantic Ocean for Flight 447’s black box, Clive Irving explains how aviation came to depend on this idiosyncratic recording method—and why the Air France debacle proves we need to give it up.

France’s chief of air accident investigations, Paul-Louis Arslanian, held aloft a cylinder the size of a small flashlight. Sounding exasperated, he said, “This is what we are trying to find… in the Atlantic.” He was talking about the sonar beacon linked to the black box of Air France Flight 447. Depending on its location, the beacon—which for up to 30 days sends out a signal to indicate its location—and black box could be lying in a trench as much as several miles below the ocean surface. Black box into black hole. So why are we still so dependent on black boxes (they are not black and they are not boxes, but data recorders about the size of a carry-on bag) to yield the definitive answers to an airplane crash?

An iPod has thousands of times the computing power of the Apollo moon lander. The tough part is not collecting data but how to get it out of the airplane in real time.

They were developed in the 1960s. The idea was not simply to collect all the data critical to the behavior of an airliner, but to entomb it in a casing that could survive the impact of a crash and a fire. The principle that all the vital information should go down with the airplane made sense then, but not now. An iPod has thousands of times the computing power of the Apollo moon lander. The tough part is not collecting data but how to get it out of the airplane in real time.

Compression and speed are the key. Just as all the info in a digital photo is compressed into a Jpeg file and emailed, the onboard computer on an airliner has to be able to compress and send data in bursts to a satellite, which relays to it a land-based computer. This is already done aboard NASA’s space shuttles, which don’t have black boxes.

The disappearance of Flight 447 combines the problem, finding the black box, with a glimpse of the solution. The robot messages sent from the Airbus A330, as part of its standard onboard monitoring system, do not come close to providing a complete picture, but they do prove how valuable instant monitoring is. Right now, for example, these systems are already used not only to track an airplane’s performance but also infringements of flying rules. If a pilot turns too sharply at takeoff, or makes a hard landing, it is recorded and he gets questioned about it by the airline after landing.

International airline regulatory bodies are notoriously slow to agree to common standards for new technology. The U.S. Congress is similarly retarded: A bill that would upgrade the existing flight data recorders has been stuck in a House committee since 2005. You would think that any Silicon Valley nerd could write a program that would transform the whole technology of crash investigations. Moreover, it’s not too fanciful to imagine going from the proactive to the pre-emptive. Most crashes (probably including Flight 447) are caused by an unlucky sequence and confluence of events. Suppose the next generation of gizmos not only track those vital signs but warn the crew when they see an imminent flat-liner?

Xtra Insight: Before 447: Seven Other Aviation Mysteries

Xtra Insight: Clive Irving on Flight 447's 24 error messages.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation.