Those data recording Black Boxes are actually painted orange, so that they will show up better in any wreckage. There are usually two of them and they are stored in the tail of the airplane. Stored back there in the tail improves their chances of survivability. Did you ever hear of an airplane backing into a mountain? Doesn’t happen.
The casing of a Black Box consists of two shells of stainless steel with a heat protective material between the shells. The case must withstand a temperature of 2,000 Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.
Inside the case, on shockproof mounts, are the plane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders. The flight data recorder is continually fed information on the speed, direction, altitude, acceleration, engine thrust, engine performance, and position of the flight controls. A total of about 100 different parameters. The data is recorded on stainless steel tape which has the thickness of aluminum foil. When the tape is played back, it generates a computer printout.
The cockpit voice recorder records the previous 30 minutes of the crew’s conversation and radio transmissions. This is a continuous loop tape, so only the last 30 minutes is saved.
New planes joining the airline fleets are using solid-state recorders, essentially stacked arrays of computer chip boards about 2 inches by 1 inch. No moving parts, greater reliability, less maintenance, and less chance of anything breaking in a crash. These newer units record 25 hours of flight data and 2 hours of cockpit conversations. Up to 700 sets of data can be recorded.
The cockpit voice recorder has 4 microphones; one in the pilot’s headset, one in the co-pilot’s (first officer) headset, one in the third crewmember’s headset, and one mounted in the center of the cockpit, so it can pick up alerts and alarms. Many modern planes have a cockpit crew of 2, instead of 3.
Black Boxes are also equipped with an underwater locator beacon. If the plane crashes into water, the beacon sends out an ultrasonic pulse that can be detected by sonar and acoustical locating equipment. A sensor is activated when touched by water. It pings once per second for 30 days.
Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, a wide body Airbus A330, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June, 2009, killing all 228 people abroad. It took nearly 2 years to find the Black Boxes in deep water. It required an advanced robotic submersible and millions of dollars to find and retrieve the Black Boxes.
So now the thinking has changed. Why not stream the data in real time to either satellites or ground stations? The technology already exists. Anyone with a smart phone can receive streaming data from the stock markets.
The Canadian airplane maker, Bombardier, announced recently that their jets, starting in 2013, will transmit telemetry data in real time, as well as record it the traditional way on Black Boxes.
A recent patent, called Safelander, would enable a ground-based pilot to take remote control of an airplane in flight. This system, had it been in place, could have foiled the 9/11 hijackers. The military routinely flies drones in surveillance and combat missions. There are now discussions about cargo-only aircraft, such as United Parcel and Fed Ex, being flown by remote control, with no cockpit crew whatsoever. We are living in truly exciting and wondrous times!