Airbus A320 plane crash highlights outdated black box technology

Recent tragedy highlights the urgent need for airlines and air safety regulators to modernize the outdated black box systems.

By
March 28, 2015 21:20
3 minute read.
plane crash

A rescue helicopter from the French Securite Civile flies over the French Alps during a rescue operation near the crash site of an Airbus A320.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The inadequacy of data retrieved from the recovered voice recorder of the Airbus A320 that crashed last week in the French Alps, and the difficulty in locating the second black box, highlight the need to revise this outdated technology.

In fact, the sparse information from the recovered voice recorder initially deepened the mystery surrounding the tragedy, raising the possibility that at least one pilot was locked out of the cockpit prior to the crash. There is more modern technology available that would provide more detailed information, in real time, and minimize the need for guesswork.

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My previous article on this topic (“Black box technology is outdated,” The Jerusalem Post, April 28, 2014) was written in the wake of the enormously costly and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to recover the flight recorder of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, which simply disappeared, presumably in the South Indian Ocean, on March 8, 2014. The search involved nine planes plus ships from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the US, and two Japanese ships with three helicopters.

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As the Malaysian aircraft went missing over the sea, much of that article dealt with ejectable black boxes. But it also recommended the preferable use of real-time transmission of black box data to ground locations via satellite, using what has come to be known as Virtual Black Box (VBB) technology, which could have eliminated the need to retrieve the black boxes in the recent Airbus tragedy.

As VBB provides much more effective and useful information at lower human and financial costs, the retention of our outdated black box technology is unforgivable. As explained previously the technology is available but airlines as well as safety authorities need to be convinced of the benefits versus the cost.

The VBB system would enable the continuous real-time global tracking of aircraft, and raise alerts regarding dangerous flight anomalies, human error or cockpit intrusions. The VBB would send its data via VHF or a satellite network, whichever is available at the location at the time.

Experts have argued that improvements in satellite technology could provide a new impetus to the idea of tracking planes more closely. Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a retired US Air Force major-general, has been quoted as saying: “The technology is out there, but it’s just a question of political will to recognize this is important.... What hasn’t improved is that we still have to wait to recover those boxes to begin accident investigations. Precious days are wasted.”

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As mentioned in my previous article, certain pilots’ organizations opposed the introduction of cockpit voice recorders on the grounds of invasion of privacy. But now, at last, in the wake of the MH370 disappearance, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA ) has recommended transmission of key technical data from the cockpit to a virtual black box during unexpected flight pattern changes. BALPA general secretary Jim McAuslan said that with the right safeguards against misuse in place, pilots want more cockpit information to be transmitted when a flight gets into trouble and stored in a virtual black box. The association said that measures should be implemented to ensure data is only used to investigate serious safety incidents and does not lead investigators to wrong conclusions and suggested that airlines and regulators create minimum international tracking standards to track aircraft globally.

The cost considerations for a VBB system must take into account not only the enormous costs incurred in the search for black boxes but also the additional valuable information that can be transmitted by the VBB system.

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