The “Black Box” Revealed: History of Flight Data Recorders

How many time have we heard that investigators are searching for the “black box” after an aviation accident? This refers to the flight data recorder (FDR) which all commercial and corporate airplanes in the United States are required to carry. They are also required to be equipped with a cockpit voice recorder. It might seem like the FDR is an extremely modern, space age device, but in fact, the earliest type of flight recorders date back to 1939. Developed in France by François Hussenot and Paul Beaudouin, their “type HB” flight recorder used a photographic record. Another early version was developed in the UK during World War II by Len Harrison and Vic Husband. Their technology used various styli which indicated readings of various instruments / aircraft controls and were recorded on copper foil. Modern FDR technology was invented by Dr. David Warren at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia. In the mid-1950s he took part in the investigation of a mysterious crash involving the world’s first jet-powered commercial aircraft, the Comet. It occurred to Dr. Warren that if there had been some kind of recording of what was happening on the aircraft just prior to the crash—that would have been a huge help to the investigation. His first demonstration unit was produced in 1957. In 1960, an unexplained plane crash in the northern part of Australia prompted that government to make the Black Box mandatory for all commercial aircraft. They were the first country to do so. The media was quick to adopt the term, “black box.” Although the origins of the term “black box” are uncertain, what is certain is that having them onboard aircraft has revolutionized the accident reconstruction industry. Black Box Facts: • FDRs are not located in the cockpit of an aircraft, but rather in the rear, typically in the tail. Why? It’s unlikely that a plane would go down tail first. The entire front and midsection of the plane acts as a buffer, to reduce the shock reaching the recorder. • Today’s black box is not black at all, but a bright orange for ease in spotting it among the wreckage in case of an accident. • Black boxes emit an underwater locator beacon for up to 30 days, in case of a water crash. They can operate in depths of up to 20,000 feet.

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