Black boxes – formally known as Flight Recorders – are special devices that record as much as possible about the operations of the aircraft they’re installed in. However, while they’re mandatory on most planes past a certain size, many smaller planes do not require a recorder. Here are the things you should know as you consider whether or not to install one.

A Brief History Of The Flight Recorder

The earliest known flight recorder was made in 1939 by two French men who developed a photograph-based system that remained in use through the seventies. While quite limited – the film couldn’t be reused and only lasted for relatively short flights – this invention served as the start of what would go on to become one of the most critical devices in aviation.

The first modern version of a black box was completed in 1942 by a Finnish aviation engineer, and the ideas were expanded on in Australia and the United States to create the devices we know today. As development continued, the machines began to gather information like how much exhaust there was, the temperature of the plane, its velocity, the fuel flow, and as many other bits of information as it could.

The entire system bears a startling resemblance to today’s internet analytics, which gathers data on website visitors instead of planes. Like analytics, the black box system is ultimately designed to make its associated industry safer and more informed.

The Modern Black Box

The modern version of a black box isn’t black – it’s bright orange, a color that rarely appears in nature and is easy to see when recovering from a crash. To supplement this, there’s a black box warning on the outside (usually in English and French) reminding people to leave it alone. The boxes are sturdier than almost any other part of a plane, capable of withstanding temperatures over 1,800 Fahrenheit and impacts of 3,400 g’s.

For context, a car crash at 70 miles per hour produces about 98 g’s, while an elite boxer can deliver about 53 g’s. A solid strike with that force is often an instant knockout for their opponent, which goes to show how durable the black box is. They’re designed to withstand one of the most severe situations any human-made thing could be involved in, and in most cases, they do.

There are three main components of a black box. First, there are the sensors placed throughout the plane, adding to its weight but allowing the box to record the data. That data is stored inside the black box as often as a few times each second, making it possible to see exactly what was going on with the plane before the crash.

In addition to the sensors and the data recorder, black boxes also have a cockpit voice recorder (CVR) so people can listen to what anyone in the cabin said before impact. This often provides crucial context and helps determine where things went wrong.

For safety reasons, black boxes are required in all commercial airplanes and have been since 1967. They’re optional on small craft… and as you’ll understand from the content that follows, there’s no real way to do black box testing and see if you want to keep it. Unless you have truly incredible amounts of money to spare, you’ll either have the system or you won’t.

How Do They Store Data?

Modern black boxes store data in a solid-state system with no moving parts. This effectively eliminates the need for maintenance and improves the survivability during a crash. Most units have enough data to store two hours of audio and 25 hours of flight data, which is enough to determine the causes of most problems if the box can be recovered.

The actual amount of data recorded is determined in part by the parameters a unit pays attention to. A major commercial airline may record nearly 150,000 different pieces of information, resulting in terabyte-sized records for every single flight. When there are more than 100,000 flights a day, you can see how this quickly becomes a truly incredible amount of information.

Typical parameters that companies monitor include:

  • The time (both overall and of each event)
  • The airspeed of the vehicle
  • The magnetic heading
  • The fuel flow
  • The vertical acceleration
  • The control-column position
  • The rudder-pedal position
  • The pressure altitude
  • The horizontal stabilizer
  • The control wheel position
  • …and anything else that may be relevant on a given flight

Remember, every single one of these factors needs a sensor – though some sensors can monitor more than one thing. Whether a system is tracking dozens or tens of thousands of parameters, one thing is clear: Engineers almost have more data than they know what to do with.

Fortunately, modern data management is up to the challenge of handling all this data. It takes sophisticated systems to store and extract useful results from that much data, but it’s entirely possible – and airlines have every reason to do their best. The last thing they want to do is develop a reputation for being dangerous.

The Black Box Alternative: Live Data Streams

In recent years, some people have been gathering support for an alternative to black boxes: live data streams from planes. This solves one of the fundamental problems with black boxes: the need to find the darn things. While many of them have transponders, sonar systems, and other items that help searchers locate them, there’s no guarantee they can be recovered before their batteries run out.

The proposed alternative for black boxes is having recorders that can automatically eject from the craft before it crashes, ideally sending out a strong signal to make finding it much more manageable. Live streams of data are unquestionably more useful… as long as they continue working.

The main issue with live streams of data is the need to connect to a recording system. Most planes can’t guarantee that they’ll always be in the range of ground systems, meaning the only convenient alternative is accessing something like a satellite network. If connections can be established and maintained, it may be possible to both record more information and keep track of all flights.

The upshot of this is that if a crash occurs, rescuers are more likely to know precisely where to begin looking. If passengers aren’t killed on impact, this may even save lives. The technology for this isn’t ready yet, but companies are working on it, and it may eventually supersede the existing black boxes.

The downside is the cost. Constantly live-streaming large amounts of data is expensive and could cost about $100,000 per-plane for the system alone, at least for larger craft. You could buy several small planes outright at that price. Furthermore, many people doubt that we actually need an improved system. Major accidents with airplanes are already rare, and there is a point of diminishing returns for tracking and gathering data.

Manufacturers offer one counterpoint to the cost, though: By using the information to improve a plane’s performance, it may actually save money over time. That’s mostly a concern for large, commercial companies, though. Private pilots are mostly fine as they are.

Do I Need A Black Box On My Small Plane?

Officially? No. However, there are a few advantages to them – including their ability to detect problems that can lead to an accident if not addressed in time. Many black box systems allow for the data to be quickly removed and scanned – and the scanners can easily look for “events” that deviate from the normal operations of the plane.

For example, if your fuel is suddenly flowing slower than before, you may need to clean the pipes. Now, this isn’t a substitute for the recommended maintenance schedule, but it is a helpful addition that can catch many problems (or at least let you know to check for problems) before they get worse.

The Downsides Of The Fantasy

Don’t get me wrong: the black box is a great system, and it’s good that we have it. However, few things in this world are purely good, and there are a few drawbacks to consider before you rush out to install a black box on your plane.

First, there’s the weight of the system. A typical flight recorder with data and voice parts weighs around 20 pounds, not counting all of the sensors you’ll need to install throughout the plane. Many planes also need to carry two of them – one in the front to collect data quickly, and the other in the rear to maximize the likelihood of a unit surviving.

At the cost of about $10,000 each, these aren’t a minor investment. As if the weight wasn’t bad enough, they’re also relatively bulky and limit your ability to store cargo in other parts of the plane. This isn’t a big deal on a commercial passenger jet, but it’s a significant concern for a small two-seater.

The cost isn’t limited to the units themselves – you’ll need to get them (and their sensors) installed. This should only be done by a competent mechanic, possibly the original manufacturer, and it’s realistic to expect a cost of at least several thousand dollars to do it. That’s pocket change if you’re trying to protect a million-dollar plane, but a much more serious price if you’re on a budget.

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