Hope floats but black boxes don’t


The original Australian black box (Image: DSTO)

After several months of searching for the black boxes of AF447 no joy.  They’re undoubtedly sitting on the seabed somewhere but given the depth, loss of pinger signal, undersea terrain, geographical distance of the search site and the weather, searching for and recovering them is a non trivial effort, to say the least. So, let’s ask a simple question. Why should the FDR’s end up on the sea bed in the first place?

As it happens Dave Warren the original inventor of the black box has already had that thought, in fact a number of years ago, and come up with a design that separates from an aircraft and soft lands on the sea surface where it can be recovered. As I recall the concept was simply a lightweight foam ‘esky lid’ container carrying a basic wire recorder and dye bag. The unit was mounted externally as a blister on the tail to ensure separation (1). Had such a unit been fitted to AF 447 we would now have a set of flight data to work with, rather than trying to parse out a set of ambiguous ACARS messages (3).

I wonder if one of the recommendations of the final BEA report will be for such a system? And if the BEA investigators do manage to think outside the box I wonder whether they’ll recognise Dave’s cheap and cheerful solution or opt for some high concept/high cost system proposed by the major avionics suppliers. Closer to home perhaps the Australian air safety authorities could take the lead on this issue and legislate to require all aircraft registered here to have such a system. But then again, remembering how the original black box design languished in Australia before it was picked up overseas, probably not (2).


1.  Esky is a colloquial Australian term for a portable icebox or cooler.

2.  A common and recurring theme in Australia is for our inventors to be faced with at best indifference or at worst outright hostility by sucessive Australian governments, and industry. Clever country yes, clever government no.

3. Had even a detachable floating locator beacon been fitted which only recorded its splashdown point we would still be that much closer to finding the wreckage.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Black boxes still don’t float « Critical Uncertainties - March 11, 2014

    […] the disappearance of MH370 without trace, I’d point out, again, that just like AF447 had a cheap and cheerful detachable data recorder been fitted we would at […]