In today’s aviation, hundreds of people can disappear in an instant. We have the technologies to safely track flights, but implementing these technologies does not conform with the fiscal bottom line. So, one flight disappears, tens of millions are spent fruitlessly searching, then another disappears, and we just stumble about … while the families and friends of those lost grieve horribly. They grieve for their real personal loss, and their pain is intensified by the cold lack of explanations.
Granted, we will not necessarily save lives by showing up at an oceanic crash scene within three hours. But, let’s not forget that one of the primary reasons for preserving this flight data is to learn from the incident and prevent it from happening again. In the U.S., we have spent decades studying civil passenger aviation and slowly acquiring new knowledge. We have learned about: wake turbulence, microbursts, crew coordination (and the need for crew resource management), icing, spatial disorientation, and basic human fatigue. In most cases, we have applied the lessons learned to create new technologies, new procedures, and new protocols. All for safety.
Today, perhaps more than ever, our government regulators are clearly teamed up with corporate officials to encourage the rapid growth of a robust trans-oceanic passenger airline industry. Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are prime markets, owing to their populations and multi-island geography. But, we as passengers are left to wonder: are our government regulators placing enough emphasis on safety and risk reduction, to learn from one accident so that a repeat accident never happens?
Case in point: the flight data recorders, aka ‘black boxes’. These devices have been around for six decades. They record all the key flight data, but they function remotely, like padlocked desktop computers without an Internet connection. When an accident happens, we still have to find the black box and hope it provides the data we need to see. And within these black boxes, the design anachronistically records voice over what was recorded two hours earlier. This is the design standard approved by agencies such as the FAA. It is as if we want to minimize our odds of producing hard data. And yet, if we can put thousands of songs on a slim personal device, surely we can record an entire flight’s worth of flightdeck conversations, right?
Is anyone served well by the current program? No. Though, in an odd way, the lack of hard data denies legal proceedings. Instead, that lack of hard data fosters a quick round of apologies and payouts to victim families, followed by head-scratching and ‘let’s forget this happened, now, and get back to the business of growing this business’. Which, seemingly, is a lousy way to run a business.
“Given that a standard iPhone can record 24 hours of audio, surely the black box should have sufficient memory to record cockpit conversation for the full duration of any flight.”
– Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, after the disappearance of MH370
Basic Streaming Data for Flight Incidents
There is no valid reason that a system cannot be deployed to stream basic flight data for all commercial passenger flight emergencies. A device that assesses the flight second-by-second and, if key flight parameters are exceeded (rate of descent, rate of climb, bank angle, pitch angle, airspeed, altitude above terrain, distance from planned route, etc.), once any parameter is exceeded, the system independently transmits the basic data for accumulation into a data cloud. A small investment, to share data to a satellite, in a situation where an on-board device senses a developing incident.
Each second, a bundle of data gets stored for quick access by others, including rescue authorities. This is not a huge and expensive bundle of data. This bundle reduces to just three basic parameters: position (lat/long), altitude, and indicated airspeed. And, if the system notes substantial changes within the previous 15-seconds, add just a few other parameters to the bundle: the heading, and/or the pitch angle, and/or the bank angle. This way we can see if the aircraft went into a spin, perhaps related to catastrophic failure. This is a mighty small bundle of data, and the least that should be done for passengers on these over-water flights.
We’ve had the technologies for many years. Now, we need the will and the leadership to use them, to start collecting data from failed oceanic flights.