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L.Srikumar Pai
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Reflections-By Dr Rajan Philips

The black box

( This motivational article was published in Oman Observer , one of the leading Newspapers in Oman. The article is reproduced with the permission of the author )


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Dr.Rajan Philips: Air travel is a wonderful gift of modern science and technology that has contributed significantly to shrink our world into a global village.

But every now and then major and fatal air crashes snuff out hundreds of lives and create shock waves. The air crash near Islamabad, Pakistan in which over 150 lost their lives is the most recent instance. The graphic media coverage of such mishaps heightens the impact of the tragedy.

When such unfortunate events occur accident investigators hunt for one vital piece of equipment with a great sense of urgency — the black box or in technical jargon, the flight data recorder (FDR). A brief look at the origin and development of this indispensable and mandatory device on all planes will be apt.

Many scientists contributed to the development of the ‘black box’ as we know it today. Yet, if one person can be singled out for special acclaim, it is Dr David Warren, a chemist who specialised in aircraft fuels.
A series of fatal accidents in 1953 and 1954 involving the De Havilland Comet jet airliners prompted an intense investigation by a professional committee that had Dr Warren as a member. Lack of reliable data hampered them.
Dr Warren then came up with the original concept of the need for a crash-proof method to record the flight crew’s conversation and other data in order to determine the causes of such accidents and help prevent future, similar avoidable mishaps.

He led a team of aviation engineers at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne to produce the first prototype of such a device in 1956. But oddly, aviation authorities worldwide failed to see its utility and remained lukewarm. Pilots perceived it as a “Big Brother” spying on their actions.

But things did change. With more air disasters, the aviation industry had to acknowledge the value of Warren’s invention. Australia became, in 1960, the first country in the world to make the use of ‘black boxes’ mandatory. On modern day aircraft there are two “black boxes”. One is the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) that records cockpit and pilot to controller communications. The other is the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) that records flight control inputs and parameters like speed and altitude.

The origin of the popular term “Black Box” may have something to do with the early film-based design of flight data recorders, which required the interior of the recorder to be perfectly dark. The name, though, is a misnomer in that modern FDRs are externally painted red or bright orange for high visibility at a crash site. They are usually mounted in the aircraft’s tail section where the impact of crash is likely to be minimal.

Black boxes are carefully engineered and stoutly constructed using very strong corrosion-resistant stainless steel or titanium capable of withstanding a high speed impact and the heat of an intense fire. In fact, one manufacturing test involves firing them from cannon into a wall to simulate an aircraft crash scenario. It is not surprising that these devices cost between $10,000 and $15,000 each.

While the search for the black box of a crashed plane may be an unpleasant and chilling task, it is an inevitable aspect of the investigation. In fact, the recovery of the device is second in importance only to the rescue of survivors and recovery of bodies of victims.

The invention of the ‘black box’ is a key milestone in aviation history. That is why the primary pioneer David Warren, who died recently, on July 19, at the age of 85, deserves to be remembered with gratitude.

- Oman Observer

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