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How black box data helps aviation investigators after a crash

On Behalf of | Apr 19, 2023 | Accidents & Incidents

Although they are still statistically rare in the United States, plane crashes remain a concern for passengers, airline employees, and officials alike. One valuable safety tool that’s small but powerful is the flight data recorded, aka “the black box.”

Brief history of the black box

Flight data recorders were first used in the late 1940s but weren’t mandatory equipment until 1958. They’re also not entirely black but bright orange. The more common name of “black box” stems from the fact that they were initially housed in black plastic cases that helped camouflage the devices when they were installed in combat aircraft.

In modern commercial aircraft, they’re a helpful tool for investigators looking into the cause of aviation accidents. Depending on the type of black box, they can record cockpit conversations, electronic data and transmissions about the aircraft, or both.

The housing of these devices is made of a material that’s stronger than granite and constructed to withstand extremes in temperature, force, and altitude.

How flight data recorders work

These seemingly indestructible devices are often the only remaining evidence of what preceded a plane crash. So, what do black box recordings tell investigators after they’re recovered?

Black boxes are usually housed in the tail of an airplane, which is considered the most impact-resistant portion of the place. Each flight data recorder holds an average of two hours of conversation and the 25 most recent hours of flight operation.

During a flight, they detect, record, and download information for analysis regarding aircraft:

  • Heading
  • Speed
  • Altitude
  • Vertical acceleration
  • Time

They can also transmit for up to 90 days after being submerged under water, which is an invaluable aid when locating planes lost at sea. The tracking signal is configured to activate upon contact with water.

Although they don’t directly prevent air traffic collisions, the data recovered from flight data recorders helps provide answers and some closure after a crash. The information obtained could also contribute to flight safety planning in the future.