Air France tragedy: Time to require black boxes that float? (They exist)

A Brazilian Air Force C-105 aircraft takes off from Fernando de Noronha airport, Brazil, on June 3, for a search mission to find victims or debris of Air France flight 447. The airliner disappeared on June 1 over the Atlantic with 228 people on board while en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

Perhaps it's time to require airlines to install floating, "deployable" black boxes on their aircraft. Wouldn't ya think?

Searchers are looking at a  tough hunt for the "black boxes" that will help them unravel the mystery of Air France flight 447's crash in the Atlantic.

According to the Associated Press:

"...if the black boxes are at the bottom of the sea, their recovery will have to wait for the arrival early next week of a French research ship with remotely controlled submersibles that can explore as deeply as 19,600 feet (6,000 meters)."

The boxes -- one for cockpit conversations with the ground and among the crew, one for data gathered on some 400 processes on the plane -- are built into the tail sections of airliners. These are the sections most likely to endure a crash intact. But finding the tail section, if it's still intact, then getting the black boxes back, will be challenging. Again, from the AP:

The head of France's accident investigation agency, Paul-Louis Arslanian, said in Paris that he is "not optimistic" about recovering the recorders — and that investigators should be prepared to continue the probe without them."It is not only deep, it is also mountainous," he said. "We might find ourselves blocked at some point by the lack of material elements."

The encouraging news: This summer, the US Department of Homeland Security, the US National Transportation Safety Board, and the US Federal Aviation Administration will be conducting a  feasibility study on the use of deployable recorders for airliners.

The not-so-encouraging news: The US military has been using them for years. It's a technology well in hand. That's the word from Jim Hall, a former head of the NTSB. (Truth in advertising: His Washington D.C. firm consults for one of several companies that make the devices.)

These deployable recorders, first developed in Canada, don't replace the existing black boxes. Instead, they serve as a back-ups. If the main boxes can't be recovered, these would still be available.

How? We can turn to car air bags for a clue. The bags are linked to accelerometers that sense changes in a car's movement. If the car stops, and that stop exposes the occupants to g-forces (a measure of acceleration or deceleration) above a certain threshold, the bags inflate. Now, shift to an aircraft about the auger in. (At least in the case of an F-18 fighter, hopefully the pilot will have ejected.)

The deployable black box's sensors likewise are set to a certain threshold. When they sense "crash," the recorder is ejected from the tail area. It's designed to hurtle clear of any wreckage. It can float. And it sends out a radio beacon that passing satellites can pick up. Instead of taking days to locate the wreckage and longer (if ever) to recover flight data recorders and voice recorders from the ocean floor, it can be done in hours because the recorders remain on the surface.

After 9-11, US officials tried to get airlines to give these a spin. Among other things, they could have provided valuable information about what went on during the hijackings and subsequent collisions with the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. And since the FAA's land-based radar can only track aircraft to about 250 miles offshore, such recorders would be vital in dealing with airliners that disappear outside the radars' range.

Why hasn't this technology been more widely adopted?

"The airline industry has been reluctant to accept anything that involves additional cost after 9-11, " Mr. Hall says."After 9-11 the need for a deployable recorder was obvious. This particular accident off the coast of Brazil puts an exclamation point on that need."

Despite the rugged submarine terrain lying beneath the crash site, some experts hold out hope the black boxes will be found.  We noted that yesterday in a post on what it takes to mount a search.

The sentiment was echoed in today's Washington Post:

"They are trying to be found," said William R. Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation. "The navies involved have sophisticated equipment designed to find submarines that are tying to hide. I think there is a good possibility that they will be able to locate these boxes."
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