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Flight Data Recorders: A Short History

Flight data recorders have a fascinating history, and have come a long way since they were first introduced.

Flight data recorders had their origins in the 1950s. They were originally simple devices relying on metal foil. Introduced in 1958 after a series of deadly accidents involving the de Havilland DH 106 Comet, the first production jetliner, the first ‘black box’ could only measure five parameters:

• Heading;

• Altitude;

• Airspeed;

• Vertical acceleration; and

• Time

These parameters were recorded by a stylus storing information on metal foil. The information could, unfortunately, only be used once. It was soon discovered that they were substantially quite useless to assess the causes of accidents.

Australia became the first country in the world to require the installation of cockpit voice recorders in 1963. We also became the first to require flight data recorders. In 1965, it became mandatory in the United States to install the cockpit voice recorder. Magnetic tape was able to record thirty minutes of ambient cockpit noise.

flight data recorders

A flight data recorder from a Sukhoi Su-24.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons used under a Creative Commons licence.

Surprisingly, there was some reluctance to install Flight Data Recorders in aircraft. The Royal Australian Air Force thought that it would be useless, “yielding more expletives than explanations”. The labour union Australian Federation of Air Pilots was also initially against them. They thought it was akin to spying on pilots.

An expert writing in 1977 in the Journal of Air Law and Commerce praised the flight recording technology saying they provided investigators with a wealth of useful information. The number of parameters had grown by then, but there was a push to require more. The writer noted that the U.S. National Transport Safety Bureau recommended requiring more, but this would require adding more wiring, sensors and transducers. He noted this was severely problematic for the industry and it could take a big airliner out of service.

Flight data records in contemporary times

Things have certainly changed.

The 1990s saw the most innovative changes to flight recorder technology. The ‘Solid State’ data recorder over the decade became able to record hundreds of parameters and two hours of voice recording. In 2002, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a Code of Federal Regulations requiring at least 88 parameters on aircraft manufactured from August 2002.

In 2012, the European Aviation Space Agency created new requirements for black boxes to have minimum voice recording durations for 25 hours instead of two. These will apply from January 2021.

One of the most recent changes emerged in response to the MH370 disaster in 2014. Its mysterious disappearance led to the creation of a 90 day underwater flight data recorder location beacon. This technology allows investigators more time to search for the aircraft over water after an accident. Installation of these has also become a requirement in Europe.

Today, many believe that the next step is to transmit parameter data and voice recording from the cockpit real time into the cloud.

Flight data recorders are an essential component for an aircraft. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact our specialists at Avlaw Aviation Consulting.

Main photo from Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons licence.