What exactly is a black box?

After any aviation disaster occurs, one of the primary items the crash investigators seek to find is the black box. But what is it and what does it do?

Firstly, a black box consists of two separate boxes – a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder. Secondly, they aren’t black but dayglo orange – this makes them easier to spot amongst airplane debris. They are usually located in the tail section of an aircraft.

The flight data recorder monitors and records all the different parameters of the aircraft’s flight such as attitude, altitude, speed, flight controls, etc and allows investigators to build a picture of what happened in the last moments leading up to a crash. Using this data they can build a 3D simulated animation of what was happening to the aircraft.

The cockpit voice recorder records not only any conversation (and other noises) in the flight deck but also all transmissions made to and from ATC.

Using the data from both the FDR and CVR, aircraft accident investigators can usually find the main cause of a crash and then this information will be used to help prevent anything similar from happening in the future.

Can the recorders be found if an aircraft crashes into the sea?

Each recorder is fitted with an Underwater Locator Beacon (ULB) which assists search teams in finding them underwater. They emit an acoustic signal which can be tracked using special equipment to a depth of 14,000 feet for 6-8 weeks.

Why not have aircraft continuously transmit this data in flight to a base station?

This is a question that has come up more and more in recent years, especially with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in 2014, and is a very valid one. The simple answer at the moment is cost. Airlines these days run on very tight profit margins and in order to implement such a system would require producing, certifying (which is a long process) and installing special equipment on all aircraft and then similarly having equipment on the ground to receive and store all the information been sent from each aircraft. The extremely small number of cases where this would be useful technology simply doesn’t warrant the cost of implementing it.

That said, with the onset of on-board internet on more and more airlines now, the case to implement such a system is becoming a reality with the technology already being in place.

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