Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Flight Recorder For The Little Guy

A partial solution to the flight-recorder problem that doesn’t cost a fortune

FLIGHT LOG. The wide-angle Nflightcam records video, radio/intercom audio and GPS position.
I like to think pilots read accident reports out of a sense of self-preservation rather than ghoulish curiosity. I know my interest is in avoiding the dumb mistakes others have made (I’m perfectly capable of making my own stupid mistakes, thank you very much), and I’ve learned a lot from reading the NTSB’s final reports of probable cause.

I’ve also witnessed a half-dozen accidents in 50 years of flying, and I can guarantee there’s nothing attractive about the process. Contrary to some nonpilots’ belief, flying is an inherently safe process, but if you spend a half century hanging around airports and attending air shows and air races, you’re almost bound to see some unfortunate collisions between airplanes and ground.

I’ve lost several friends in unusual circumstances, and we’ll never know what happened. Larry and Elaine were killed in 2002 when the tail of their V-tail Bonanza separated in Northern California. Though there were witnesses and Larry had installed the required tail beef-up kit, the NTSB was uncertain what caused the accident.

More recently, another friend crashed under less dramatic circumstances, and the cause of his accident is still partially a mystery. Bud flew a Pilatus PC-12 into the ground near the Butte, Mont., airport, and again, weather apparently wasn’t a contributing factor. The coroner suggested he may have suffered some physical incapacitation. The details aren’t important here, but the airplane wasn’t equipped with any kind of flight recorder, so we may never know exactly what happened.

And therein lies the rub. Without any onboard device to record the events leading up to an accident, there’s no way to know for sure what caused a crash.

Flight data recorders date back to the early 1940s, but the first major effort to make such devices mandatory in airliners was initiated by the British, a result of the series of de Havilland Comet crashes in the early 1950s. Those first systems recorded both flight parameters and cockpit voice conversations (CVRs). The units were film based, and the interiors of the containers were painted solid black to help preclude light leaks, thus the nickname “Black Boxes.” (Today’s black boxes are actually bright red or orange, so they’ll be more visible in the debris field of an accident.)

All airliners are required to carry flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders that run on a loop, preserving all flight parameters and conversation for short periods of time, usually one to several hours.

By definition, flight data recorders are expensive, and for good reason. They must be built tough to withstand the often high G-loads of an aircraft crash and the possible postcrash fire. Additionally, they’re technologically sophisticated in that they must record and preserve virtually every flight parameter, typically a minimum of 88 such indications on modern airliners to comply with ICAO requirements. Most FDR/CVR units are mounted in the aircraft’s tail, where impact forces aren’t as severe.

A dedicated flight recorder isn’t something most general aviation pilots would buy voluntarily for their airplane, because by definition, its use might be most obvious after we’re gone. The trick would be to find another, more economical and entertaining application for a flight recorder, one that might actually make the idea of recording the parameters of flight more attractive.


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