Summer 2002

Black Box

The secrets of the flight data recorder

Tom Vanderbilt

In 1997, a Garuda Airlines Airbus 300-B4 crashed into a highland jungle slope near Medan, North Sumatra, killing 224 people. As Indonesian police and military teams, aided by aviation investigators from other countries, combed through the dense Sumatran canopy for the missing flight data recorder, it was reported that clairvoyants from a neighboring village had been called in to assist on the search.

The story seems drawn from the portfolio of J. G. Ballard: The sophisticated electronic device submerged in the primeval Indonesian murk, the search teams straining for the ping of the homing beacon as local seers delved into their own visions to locate the signal, Western rationalism run headlong into Eastern mysticism, nature already crawling over and reclaiming the aluminum-and-plastic debris field of this “flight into terrain.”

And yet the opposition between the black box recorder—or, more correctly, flight data recorder (FDR), and its accompanying instrument, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR)—and the Sumatran clairvoyants may be more of form than function, for indeed there is a kind of mystical quality to the black box, this device that, rather than looking ahead in a clairvoyant sense, is able to look back on the past, presenting through its myriad recorded variables a lineage of how history was, and how it might have been. If the mystics suggest Tiresias, the blind prophet of Greek mythology able to see forward, then the black box is akin to the character “Er,” that figure introduced in Plato’s Republic who is able to report from beyond the dead.

And so to a culture already fecund with survivor stories—whether survivors of political brutality, broken homes, or the manufactured reality contests of Hollywood—is added the ultimate sole survivor: this humble “black box,” which in fact is usually painted Day-Glo orange for obvious reasons of visual reconnaissance (but is often charred black upon retrieval). Air disasters, despite their relative rarity (compared to deaths caused by smoking, industrial accidents, or car crashes), have become a collective vessel for anxiety, a testing of our larger faith in the promise that technology, so quickly made obsolete, may someday make death itself obsolete. Thus after each crash we look eagerly, and more than a bit accusatorily, toward another bit of technology, the black box, whose survival reaffirms our faith in technology even as its message may ultimately undermine it—although, admittedly, many crashes are attributed to “human error.”

While true black box data is in fact incomprehensible to most of us, the transcripts of the CVR have entered the lexicon, collected in Malcolm McPherson’s The Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents, deployed in the off-Broadway play Charlie Victor Romeo, and even used as the narrative inspiration for the hypertext work of Alistair Gentry (100 Black Boxes). They are predictably chilling exchanges, with an oft-recurring theme being the lack of cognizance by pilots as to what is actually taking place—they are missing what is called “situational awareness,” dependent only upon data that may in fact not be telling the truth. Yet even the survival of black box data may not help establish the truth. In the case of EgyptAir flight 990, which dropped mysteriously into the Atlantic Ocean half an hour after departing from JFK, the CVR and FDR seemed to tell the following story: After the captain and copilot had excused themselves from the cabin (for different reasons), a cruise co-pilot left alone in the cockpit soon uttered the words “Tawakkalt ala Allah,” disengaged the autopilot, pulled up on the throttle and put the airplane’s “elevators” into a steep descent position. The plane plummeted—so rapidly that EgyptAir’s computers back at JFK decided the data was incorrect—and as the crew rushed back to the cockpit they were unable to correct the situation as the co-pilot uttered the same words again. As The Atlantic reported, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) interpreted the voice and data record as showing a “controlled descent,” i.e., intentional. There it might have ended, save for the Egyptian government’s insistence the NTSB was misinterpreting the data—not only that of Boeing’s engineers, but of the pilot. The pilot’s utterance did not mean, as the NTSB had it, “I rely on God,” but rather, “I put my fate in God’s hands”; or, more grandiloquently, “I depend in my daily affairs on the omnipotent Allah alone.” Rather than a preface to suicide, he was praying in response to some failure condition not revealed by the black box recorder (a bomb, a missile, or the weather were all given as reasons). The black box, its data supposedly telling a value-free, neutral story, had thus entered the age of postmodernism as decried by Alan Sokal: Its truth was deemed relative, open to multiple interpretations.

For all of its cultural notoriety, the black box recorder as a thing has received little attention, becoming an object lesson of the larger phenomenon of the Black Box itself, i.e.: “An abstraction of a device or system in which only its externally visible behavior is considered and not its implementation or ‘inner workings.’” The black box has come to have a host of associative meanings, mostly seemingly pejorative: for example, in his final article, architecture critic Reyner Banham chided architecture as a discipline for being a “black box”—oblique, secretive, mystifying for the sake of its own self-propagating grandeur. Area 51, or “Dreamland,” that mysterious off-the-map quadrant in Nevada, is often called “The Black Box,” and indeed its signature export, the Stealth bomber, is perhaps the ultimate black box, for not only are the Stealth bomber’s inner workings carefully concealed beneath its inky exterior, but its “external behavior” is also impossible to consider, on radar at least. Transparency, along with technology, was one of the key projects of utopian modernism, and nothing flies in the face of that more flagrantly than the black box, which now reads as a symbol of th­e covert void: “Right now Echelon is a black box,” said the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), speaking of the National Security Agency’s global eavesdropping system, “and we really don’t know what is inside it.”

As an object, however, the black box recorder should not be overlooked, for it might be the purest representation of the function of design in one form. As multiple observers have noted (e.g., Christopher Alexander in Notes on a Synthesis of Form, and Henry Petroski in To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design), failure is one of the most essential factors in the best design: Only by what has not worked do we learn to create what does work. Rarely is a product ever final. Its form merely represents a transient compromise between human need and technological ability, and the best designers are those able to extrapolate failure out of a seemingly successful status quo. And thus it should come as no surprise that, at the dawn of the jet age in the early 1950s, the de Havilland company’s “Comet,” the world’s first plane powered by jet propulsion rather than propellers, suffered a number of well-publicized crashes. There were stress tests, there were wind tunnels, there was test data—but once a plane had crashed, it was not easy to discern why from the wreckage alone (in those cases where the wreckage was retrievable). With the physical body damaged beyond recognition and without witnesses present, who was to account for the cause of death? The airplane needed a mechanism for providing an autoautopsy.

Enter David Warren, a researcher at Australia’s Aeronautical Research Laboratories. An electronics buff whose father had, ironically, died in one of Australia’s seminal airline disasters (the 1934 crash of the Miss Hobart), Warren was working on the investigation of the first Comet crash in 1953 when he proposed that cockpits be outfitted with a device that could record up to four hours of speech as well as a variety of inputs from flight instruments. In 1954, he circulated a paper, “A Device for Assisting Investigation into Aircraft Accidents,” but it was not until he fashioned a working prototype—called the “ARL Flight Memory Unit”—that it began to receive some interest. Many doubted the necessity or practicality of the device, however. The pilot’s union even hinted at sinister motives: the device would be “a spy flying alongside. … No plane would take off in Australia with Big Brother listening.” As Australia then boasted the world’s best airline safety record, it was slow to take on the project, which gained faster ground in England. In 1958, the British firm of S. Duvall & Son released its “Red Egg” recorder, which quickly became a market leader globally. After a series of airline accidents in the 1960s, it was Australia, strangely enough, that then became the first country to require mandatory flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

Today the FDR market is dominated by companies like L-3 Communications, which generates about $2 billion a year in revenue selling FDRs. “We are the Sears Roebuck [of the FDR industry], with a catalog of all kinds of these high-tech boxes,” its CEO has said. Given that the ultimate role of the black box is to improve the design of airplanes, there have been any number of improvements to the black box itself, which has seen its recording mechanism go from engraving on a wire to loopable magnetic tapes to solid-state “flash” memory. While the first recorders measured only a handful of instrument readings, the latest generation of recorders have capacities for measuring some 700 readings. Today’s recorders feature remote sensing beacons that are activated when submerged in water, and one company has even developed what it calls DFIRS, or Deployable Flight Incident Recorder Set, which can be ejected from a plummeting plane and safely parachuted to Earth. Early on, the various black boxes were kept in the cockpit, but contemporary models are stored in the rear, often somewhere near the back galley—as one manufacturer explained it, “the whole front portion of the airplane provides a crush zone, which assists in the deceleration of tail components, including the recorders, and enhances the likelihood that the crash-protected memory of the recorder will survive.”

There are some 20,000 planes that depart on any given day in the United States alone, the vast majority of which proceed without incident. Black boxes play no small part in this achievement, having helped to provide the electronic fingerprints necessary in understanding such phenomena as wind shear, wing ice, or electrical failures. The design of airplanes has proceeded in response to the data laid out by black boxes, and the Federal Aviation Association (FAA), understandably, is intent on requiring carriers to outfit planes with the latest black boxes: the older the black box, the greater the chance it will fail to record some variable in the ever more complex workings of a jumbo jet. Failure is an aberration in commercial aviation, yet as the statistical profile grows more encouraging, so too does the imperative to learn the reasons for a crash which, according to the numbers, should not be happening. No wonder the black box recorder is far more rugged than the airplane itself—a thin aluminum shell so fragile that pilots in an emergency landing must dump fuel to prevent undue stress upon the gossamer frame. Black boxes are subjected to any number of tests, the “static crush,” the “pierce test,” the “crash impact test,” the “fire test,” each with their own otherworldly sets of pressures and temperatures. The forces of one or all of these tests were presumably exceeded in the World Trade Center attacks, as the black boxes are said to have been destroyed. This represents a “failure” by black boxes, but as such it was part of a larger failure—by airport screeners, by flight school directors, by rental agencies—who had not envisioned the entire scenario of catastrophe. September 11 was a kind of social black box recorder for America: From the failure we will presumably never allow a commercial airline to again be used as a weapon, nor will we underestimate the threat of terrorism within our borders.

Since the onset of the industrial age, the idea of providing machines with diagnostic systems has been alluring: Charles Babbage envisioned putting black boxes of sorts on railway cars, while the Wright Brothers installed a device for measuring propeller revolutions. Now, everything from NASCAR race cars to the space shuttle are equipped with black boxes, Detroit is investigating black boxes for its own products, and a company called DRS Flight Safety and Communications Corp. is making a push into black boxes for shipping. As the company president explained, “deployable recorder technology can be used on any platform from which data survival and recovery are essential.” All around us, failure is being read, divined from the bones of the technological dead—design thus marches on. No product is ever perfect, but failure pushes us toward perfection, and every form is a compromise between the failure of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow. The human body itself is in this threshold zone: In societies not marked by endemic war or poverty, one can assume to live longer than one’s forebears, but not perhaps as long as one’s successors. The form keeps evolving. The human body, with its myriad sensors and indicators, its inner workings kept carefully concealed and rarely considered, may be the ultimate black box. The lesson, for either man or machine, is clear: None of us outlive our data.

In the interest of national security, we urge readers not to go to and look at images of black boxes on L-3 Communications’ site.

Tom Vanderbilt lives in Brooklyn and is the author of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton Architectural Press).

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