FAA rules aim to improve CVR and FDR reliability

 - January 30, 2007, 5:01 AM

“This is a recording” will have more meaning to accident investigators if the FAA enacts a proposal to beef up rules regarding cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) and flight data recorders (FDRs). The rules, proposed primarily in response to NTSB recommendations, would not mandate the installation of CVRs or FDRs in aircraft not already required to have them. Instead, operators of in-service aircraft already required to have a CVR or FDR would have to replace them with updated units that do not rely on magnetic tape for data storage.

Cockpit voice recorders are currently required on all multi-engine turbine-powered airplanes and rotorcraft requiring two pilots that are configured with six or more passenger seats. In addition to CVRs, flight data recorders will continue to be required on any commercially operated multi-engine turbine-powered airplanes and rotorcraft requiring two pilots and with 10 or more passenger seats.

The FAA intends to eliminate magnetic tape recorders because of their vulnerability to damage and decreased reliability. The agency noted that some operators are voluntarily replacing older magnetic-tape CVRs with those that use a solid-state recording mechanism because of the high costs and technical problems associated with maintaining outdated equipment, including difficulties in finding replacement magnetic tape.

The new rules, contained in an 89-page notice of proposed rulemaking released
on February 28, are “intended to improve the quality and quantity of information recorded” by CVRs and FDRs, the FAA said, thereby “increasing the ability to retain important facts during accident and incident investigations.”

Under the proposed rules, all CVRs must record the last two hours of cockpit audio instead of the currently required 15 minutes (Part 91) or 30 minutes (Parts 121 and 135). The proposed rules also require that all aircraft manufactured starting two years after the effective date of the new rules carry a 10-minute independent backup electric power source for voice recorders to allow recording even if all aircraft electrical power sources are lost or interrupted.

The FAA is not proposing a retrofit of the 10-minute independent power supply for CVRs or FDRs in aircraft already in service. “We are not able to justify the significant costs of the development and installation of such equipment for in-service aircraft,” the agency said. The agency said it “has found that in the event of a substantial loss of power to the aircraft, there would be no data coming from unpowered sensors; therefore, there would be nothing for a powered FDR to record.”

However, operators of airplanes (but not helicopters) currently in service would have to retrofit the new, longer-recording CVRs and FDRs within four years of the rule’s effective date. Data recorders would be required to retain the last 25 hours of recorded information.

It’s also proposed that FDRs record at a more frequent rate than is currently required, as well as record how much force it takes the pilots to move the controls. These enhancements to CVRs and FDRs on all newly built airplanes and helicopters would be mandated two years from the rule’s effective date.

The proposed rules clarify operating requirements for CVRs, which would have to record continuously from when pilots begin their checklist before starting the engines until completion of the final checklist when the flight ends. Compliance with this requirement would begin on the day the final rule is published. An optional erasure feature remains in the new proposal. “The FAA finds that this requirement can easily be incorporated into aircraft operations without a time for retrofit, because it requires only a new checklist be used,” the agency said.

The proposed rules also formalize current FAA policy (except for helicopters) that each type of recorder be housed in a separate unit and that no single electrical failure can disable the recorders. This requirement is effective upon publication of the final rule.

If datalink communications equipment is installed, the rules would require that datalink communications received on an aircraft be recorded. The proposed datalink communication recording requirements would apply to all aircraft manufactured two years after the effective date of the final rule.

NTSB Wants More
Flight data and cockpit voice recorders have proved to be such vital tools in aviation accident investigation that a number of open NTSB recommendations focused on enhancing these devices have been on the Safety Board’s Most Wanted List of safety improvements since 1997.

According to the Safety Board, “Numerous accident investigation reports have revealed findings of poor or inoperative CVR functionality due to failure of one or more audio channels, degraded audio fidelity and broken magnetic tape loops and drives.” Although it appears the FAA proposal addresses these issues, apparently it doesn’t go far enough to satisfy the NTSB.

“The FAA’s proposed rule is addressed primarily to flight recorder deficiencies pointed out by the NTSB when it assisted the Canadian Transportation Safety Board in the investigation of the crash of Swissair Flight 111 [the MD-11 that caught fire and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia] in 1998,” NTSB chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said. “We will review the proposed rules carefully to see whether those concerns have been addressed. I can say that I am gratified that the proposed rules will expand the cockpit voice recorder requirement from 30 minutes to two hours, and that independent power supplies will be required to prevent the loss of data if power to the recorder is interrupted during the crash sequence, as occurred on Swissair.”

The NTSB also said it hopes that the FAA will “address several of its other crucial flight recorder recommendations that are still on the Board’s Most Wanted List.” Of the two remaining items (one of which is to require an annual inspection of data recorders to make sure they operate properly), the more controversial recommendation, added in 2000, is for cockpit video recorders to capture information on crew performance and conditions in the cockpit. The installation of cockpit image recorders “would also assist in the investigations of both larger transport-category aircraft and smaller for-hire turbine-powered aircraft that may not have any existing safety recorders installed,” the Safety Board contends.

In November, the Safety Board noted “some progress” by the FAA on the recommendation for cockpit video recorders, but until the FAA takes official steps to mandate the equipment, this Most Wanted List recommendation will likely remain open with the status of “unacceptable response.”

Additionally, the Safety Board urged the FAA to act swiftly to “rectify the unacceptable FDR data sampling and filtering issues” that it says impeded the investigation into the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300-600 that shed its vertical fin and rudder shortly after takeoff from New York JFK Airport in November 2001. “Similar data sampling issues also affect the popular regional jet aircraft,” the NTSB said.

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA), an air-taxi trade group, is “troubled by the relatively short time allotted for such a substantial project and is concerned that the FAA’s cost estimates for the Part 135 fleet may be inaccurate.” The FAA’s proposal does not show a cost breakout of Part 135 operators separately from Part 121 carriers, and at press time NATA was analyzing the cost figures shown in the proposal (see box on page 101). “The FAA has a poor track record when it comes to accurately determining the cost of compliance for small businesses,” NATA president James Coyne asserted. “But we are pleased that the FAA has not sought to expand the CVR requirements to additional aircraft.”

ALPA Concerned about Misuse
Misuse of recorder data continues to be of utmost concern to airline pilots. While the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said it welcomed the FAA’s action to enhance flight safety information, it also said, “The increased amount of data makes it more important than ever that the agency respond to the aviation industry’s longstanding concerns about the abuse and misuse of flight safety data.”

Current legislation provides only limited protection against abuse and misuse of the information, ALPA contends, saying no rules exist to prevent airline management from using data for disciplinary action rather than for its original purpose of enhancing aviation safety.

“We know that recorded safety information has been misused and abused in the past and that these practices continue today. The need for decisive action to secure the information so that it is used for safety purposes exclusively could not be more urgent.”

Moreover, ALPA said, “The FAA must lead by example by setting strong standards and working toward international agreements that safeguard recorded safety information regardless of where a flight takes off or lands.”

Notwithstanding ALPA’s concerns, a bill signed in 2000 by then President Clinton reauthorizing appropriations for the NTSB includes a provision prohibiting the public–including the news media–from showing footage of in-cockpit videos of fatal accidents.

In the FAA’s view, the proposed rules would increase the amount and quality of the information being recorded. “This additional and improved information may result in time and cost savings for future accident investigations,” the agency said. “It may also generate new or revised safety rules (for airplane manufacturing or operations) or voluntary changes to airline and pilot procedures that would not otherwise have resulted in the absence of this additional information. As a result, the proposed rule may produce a safer fleet and safer airplane operations.”

Although the FAA conceded it did not propose all of the NTSB recommendations concerning CVR and FDR modifications, the agency “believes that it has chosen the course of action that maximizes safety benefits relative to compliance costs.”
Comments on the proposal are due no later than April 29. For further information, contact the FAA’s Timothy Shaver at (202) 385-4686; fax (202) 385-4651; or e-mail tim.shaver@faa.gov.

How Much Is It Going To Cost?

In its notice of proposed rulemaking to upgrade CVRs and FDRs, the FAA estimates that there are nearly 9,700 in-service aircraft that would have to obtain retrofits, but the agency did not break down cost estimates for private, air-taxi and airline aircraft. At press time, business aviation trade groups were in the midst of trying to determine what economic effect the new requirements would have on their constituency.

Based on the application of a discount rate of 7 percent (assumed by the FAA for fleet operators), to replace a 15- or 30-minute magnetic tape CVR with a two-hour-memory solid-state CVR will cost $17,500 for the equipment and $2,400 for labor. Replacing a 30-minute memory solid-state CVR costs $7,500 in equipment and $640 in labor. The cost to retrofit a 10-minute independent power supply (not required) is $6,500.

The additional cost for a future production airplane is $10,640, broken down as $3,500 for the CVR, $2,820 for the independent power, $3,000 to upgrade the FDR and $1,320 to record datalink communications.

Recorders Hit the Silk

The FAA has recently become aware of potential security benefits of a deployable flight recorder system–one that can be jettisoned from the aircraft. “We envision that such a system would be an additional set of flight data and cockpit voice recorders that could be ejected from the airplane in an emergency.”

The FAA said it does not anticipate that a deployable system would be implemented in the final rule on the CVR/FDR upgrade proposal, but information provided by commenters may be considered for future rulemaking action. This proposed rule does not include any provisions for such a deployable system.

“Significant information regarding such a system would be needed before the agency could assess the costs and benefits of such devices,” the FAA said. “The agency is interested in receiving such information, including the benefits of a deployable recorder system, how it might work, how it would be installed on an aircraft for deployment, the deployment methodology (manual or automatic), changes to aircraft design and certification, and especially the costs for development, installation and maintenance of a hardened, crash-survivable and easily recoverable system.”

Submit comments and information regarding the feasibility and specifications for a deployable recording system to the docket for this rulemaking.