Torqued: How Many Ocean Crashes Will It Take To Get Easily Accessible Black Box Data?

 - August 1, 2016, 8:00 AM

More than a month has passed since the sudden disappearance of EgyptAir Flight 804 from radar screens and its plunge into the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. The Airbus A320 was flying from Paris to Cairo at 37,000 feet when—according to investigators—it turned left, then rolled to the right before falling into the sea, along with its 56 passengers and crew of 10. Initial speculation about a catastrophic midair explosion–possibly caused by an explosive device–has given way to speculation about a number of other possible causes. But no one knows for sure. And no one will know for sure until the black box data—finally retrieved as I write—has been brought to a laboratory and the data analyzed. Unfortunately, at least one of the black boxes appears to have been damaged. At this point, it’s not known whether the time spent in salt water has done further damage.

Until those black boxes are analyzed, the speculation and theories will remain speculation and theories. No one will know whether the disaster was caused by a problem with the crew’s operation of the aircraft, calling into question EgyptAir’s training and certification of pilots; whether a problem existed with the Airbus A320, which would make checking the thousands of A320s in worldwide operation prudent; or whether security procedures at Charles de Gaulle Airport or other airports the aircraft operated out of need to be scrutinized for lapses. 

The answers to these questions have been lying for more than a month at the bottom of the sea, approximately 10,000 feet below the surface of the water. Finally, the boxes have been found and recovered, no easy feat from such great depths. And only now can the boxes finally be sent to specialized laboratories capable of deciphering the thousands of parameters recorded by modern flight data recorders and listen to the voices and sounds recorded by the cockpit voice recorder in the final hours of flight. Adding to the challenge of finding the black boxes was the faintness of the batteries’ pingers at such great depths.  Fortunately, the recorders were found before the battery life of the pingers expired; the minimum required life of the batteries is just 30 days. While many batteries last longer than 30 days, if those pingers stop emitting their sounds, finding the black boxes becomes exceedingly difficult. 

History Repeating

Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent memory that a major airliner has vanished in the depths of the ocean floor. No one involved in aviation has forgotten the enduring mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Boeing 777 that disappeared from radar more than two years ago. The airliner was on a scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China, with 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers. The aircraft made its last contact with ATC over the South China Sea, deviated from its flight path, crossed the Malaysian peninsula and disappeared from radar over the Andaman Sea. Only one piece of aircraft wreckage—a flaperon—found on Reunion, a small island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar, has been positively identified as coming from the missing 777. 

With few hard clues, speculation has been rife, attention ultimately focusing on an intentional act by a crewmember. But no one knows. And, as with EgyptAir Flight 804, no one will know whether this was an act of terrorism, a suicidal pilot, improper crew training or a fault with the aircraft or one of its systems unless and until the black box data can be retrieved and analyzed. Meanwhile, any problems that could have been immediately addressed by data gathered through a preliminary assessment of black box data have, of course, gone unaddressed.

And before MH370 mysteriously disappeared, there was Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330 on a flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Paris in June 2009. When the aircraft failed to make scheduled contacts with ATC on its way to Paris, a search for the aircraft was begun. Within a day, aircraft wreckage and signs of an oil slick were found; but it took almost two full years for the black boxes to be found and recovered from the depths of the ocean floor.

During those two years, the French BEA—the equivalent of the U.S. NTSB—was hampered in its ability to determine exactly what had gone wrong to bring down the aircraft in the middle of the Atlantic. Some clues were available from messages sent by the aircraft’s Acars and examination of the wreckage. Those messages and prior issues with the Airbus A330 and A340 pointed to the pitot tubes and the potential for differing airspeeds at high altitudes in bad weather as a factor in the crash. But without the detailed information retrievable from the flight data recorder, the cause of the accident remained speculative. It took three years from the date of the accident for the French investigators to publish the final accident report.

The technology exists today to make black box data more easily retrievable. Whether it’s using a deployable system as Airbus is considering or streaming data when sensors indicate a significant problem with the aircraft, solutions are available. Manufacturers and airlines need to make a decision and adopt the best solution that makes these lengthy and expensive hunts for black boxes—especially from the ocean depths—a thing of the past. After all, the point of accident investigations is to find out what happened so a similar accident is prevented in the future. Delay in making those determinations can leave the industry—and more important the passengers and crew—vulnerable to another tragedy.


Although I agree with the analysis, there is more at play, here. Streamed data is vulnerable to interception and will therefore throw up liability issues unless rigorous protections are embraced right across the world - which is actually (and sadly, from a safety perspective) moving in the opposite direction. So political will is more of a question than the technology.

If we are concerned about preventing future accidents, better take up of current knowledge and recommendations would be a more successful path. Just culture is both poorly understood and rarely evident, even in those parts of the world which purport to embrace it - and competitive pressures are diluting both regulator and licence holder influence over "innovative business plans" which clearly put safety culture at risk. Liberalisation is both providing more competition and removing strong regulation. Its advocates are failing to clearly lay out a future for regulation which avoids flags of convenience - which so decimated safety standards in the maritime world.

Although safety advocates should support any effective means of quickly retrieving flight data after a tragedy, and continue to strive toward no fatal events in our industry; unless we accept that some of the political and economic changes are also undermining our hard won safety standards and address those - lives will continue to be lost, sometimes from preventable events.

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