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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Explained: Why black boxes are important to an air crash investigation

Most aircraft are required to be equipped with two black boxes — the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the flight data recorder (FDR) — that record the information about a flight and help reconstruct the events leading to an aircraft accident.

Written by Pranav Mukul , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: August 8, 2020 8:08:55 pm
The black boxes will help the investigation team understand if pilots were aware that they were in a situation that was headed to such an eventuality and if so, whether they had reported any problems regarding controlling the aircraft.

In a significant development towards ascertaining the reasons behind the Air India Express crash at Kozhikode on Friday evening, investigators have found the “black boxes” of the ill-fated Boeing 737-800 aircraft. These boxes will help investigators weave together the crucial events that led to the crash, which killed at least 18 people on board, including both pilots.

What are black boxes?

The black boxes, which are actually two orange metallic boxes containing the recorders, date back to the early 1950s, when, following plane crashes, investigators were unable to arrive a conclusive cause for the accidents and deemed it necessary to install the said recorders on aircraft. In the initial days of the black box, the information was recorded on to a metal strip, which was then upgraded to magnetic drives succeeded by solid state memory chips.

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Why are black boxes important to an air crash investigation?

Most aircraft are required to be equipped with two black boxes — the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the flight data recorder (FDR) — that record the information about a flight and help reconstruct the events leading to an aircraft accident. While the CVR records radio transmissions and other sounds in the cockpit such as conversations between the pilots and engine noises, the flight data recorder records more than 80 different types of information such as altitude, airspeed, flight heading, vertical acceleration, pitch, roll, autopilot status etc.

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How do the black boxes survive the crash?

The recording devices are stored inside a unit that is generally made out of strong substances such as steel or titanium and are also insulated from factors such as extreme heat, cold or wetness. To protect these black boxes, they are equipped towards the tail end of the aircraft – where usually the impact of a crash is the least. There have been cases where planes have crashed into water bodies. To make black boxes discoverable in situations where they are under water, they are equipped with a beacon that sends out ultrasound signals for 30 days. However, in certain cases – like the Malaysian Airlines MH370 flight – the recorders aren’t found despite all the redundancies.

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How soon will the analysis from the black boxes be available?

It usually takes at least 10-15 days to analyse the data recovered from the black boxes. Meanwhile the investigators will be looking for other clues such as taking accounts from air traffic control personnel and recordings of the conversation between ATC and the pilots moments before the crash. This will help the investigation team understand if pilots were aware that they were in a situation that was headed to such an eventuality and if so, whether they had reported any problems regarding controlling the aircraft. Additionally, the investigators will also be looking at various data recorders at the airport, which would tell them about the precise point of touchdown on the runway and the speed at which the aircraft touched down.

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