By Zach Wichter, The New York Times
September 29, 2017 - PARIS -- Since the dawn of the jet age, flying has gotten significantly safer. In fact, you are thousands of times more likely to die while driving to the airport than you are flying in a plane.
Yet for all the safety advances, aviation safety experts have long been stymied by plane crashes in the sea. The onboard recorders, known as black boxes, can be difficult, if not impossible, to recover deep beneath the waves.
But a new generation of recorders, announced this summer by Airbus and set to roll out on new A350 airframes in late 2019, will make those boxes easier to retrieve. Instead of going down to the bottom with the plane, a recorder will be released and float back to the surface. It will then send a signal that satellites could pick up, allowing searchers to pinpoint its location.
That could be just the first step in changing how data is recovered in a plane crash. Some industry advocates suggest that airplanes no longer carry their flight data at all and instead live-stream it to a central storage place on the ground. But “that future is taking some time to materialize all across the fleet,” said Charles Champion, executive vice president of engineering at Airbus Commercial Aircraft. “The drawback to that is we don’t have broadband everywhere,” so streaming is not yet reliable enough to make onboard black boxes obsolete.
No matter how they obtain the information, investigators say it is important to learn the causes of air crashes. “If you don’t solve the accident or if it remains unclear, it can cast a pall,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. “The way you do that these days is by looking at the data.”
The redesigned recorders are largely a response to two of aviation’s biggest modern-day disasters. Both highlighted the limitations of the current generation of black boxes.
In 2009, Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, killing all 228 people on board. After a multinational, multimillion-dollar search that lasted more than two years, the flight data and cockpit voice recorders were finally recovered from the ocean floor.
They revealed that the crash had been caused in part by faulty pitot (pronounced PEE-toe) tubes — sensors that provide airspeed data to the pilots. The tubes had gotten clogged with ice, resulting in some inaccurate data in the cockpit. Confused by mixed signals from their instruments, the pilots unintentionally put their aircraft into an aerodynamic stall, which ultimately caused the crash.
In the wake of that time-consuming and expensive recovery effort, many in the aviation industry and regulators began calling for flight data to be made more easily recoverable after a crash. That effort gained traction in 2014 after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. Based on radar data, experts believe it probably veered off course and crashed into the Indian Ocean while flying between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Beijing.
Most of the wreckage, including the data and voice recorders, was never recovered, so the precise cause of the route deviation has not officially been determined. There were 239 people on board.
When a plane crashes into water, a sonic beacon on the recorders sends out a signal for about 30 days. In theory, the beacon makes them discoverable with the right sonar equipment, but that is not necessarily the case in deep water, especially if investigators do not already know the precise location of the wreckage.
Airbus’s new generation of recorders, which is still being developed by L3 Technologies and the Canadian subsidiary of Leonardo DRS, will combine voice and data functions into one apparatus. Aircraft will carry both a fixed and deployable version, each storing 25 hours of cockpit voice — up from about two hours now — and data on thousands of flight parameters.
In the event of a crash, the deployable recorder will be released from the plane, “triggered either by structural deformation in the fuselage or because it starts to go under water,” Mr. Champion, of Airbus, said. “Under a few meters, it will release, and the box pops up back to the surface.”
Once the box is separated from the fuselage, a satellite-based detection system will be activated — the first of its kind on a civilian aircraft. “The first alert will go off within three seconds after the beacon is deployed,” said Blake van den Heuvel, director of air programs at DRS Technologies Canada. “With that first hit, they’ll be able to pinpoint the location of the downed aircraft.”
Unlike traditional sonic locaters, the satellite-based technology instantly provides the recorder’s exact position, updating regularly as it bobs on the water. DRS is designing that satellite locator to last 150 hours — about six days. The traditional beacon on the fixed recorder, in the aircraft, will be upgraded to transmit for 90 days in response to regulations that go into effect in 2018.
Mr. van den Heuvel said that his company had been supplying similar deployable recorders on military aircraft for decades and that they had a proven record of recoverability.
“For the ones that don’t get recovered, I think you’ll find that we have situations where we’ve had a midair collision of two tactical aircraft, two very, very small aircraft both approaching Mach 1, and in that event you have very little left of the aircraft,” he said. “For transport aircraft, we’ve had a 100 percent success rate.”
Although Boeing has not made any similar announcements about efforts to make data on its aircraft easier to recover, the company emphasized that it placed a high value on safety.
“The culture of safety has really progressed collectively over the years,” said Elizabeth A. Pasztor, Boeing’s vice president for safety, security and compliance.
The industry is much more likely than it once was to share data, Ms. Pasztor said. “When it comes to safety, we truly do collaborate as an industry,” she said. “This is not an area to compete.”
In the past, with less technology and fewer regulations, flying was a much riskier way to travel. Archival pages from The New York Times can attest that not so long ago, pilots were more likely to misjudge terrain and crash into mountains, or even to crash into other planes in midair.
The last fatal airliner crash in the United States occurred in 2013 when an Asiana Airlines flight came in too low as it approached the runway in San Francisco and struck the sea wall at its edge. Video shows the plane pirouetting dramatically across the runway, but despite the remarkable images, only three people died; one of them survived the crash only to be run over by a rescue vehicle racing to the scene. The passengers who were killed were not wearing their seatbelts and were ejected from the plane.
In 2009, 50 people died when a Colgan Air commuter flight from Newark to Buffalo stalled approaching the runway, essentially falling out of the sky. That accident led to a series of new regulations based on recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board on flight crew training and working conditions.
Robert L. Sumwalt, the chairman of the N.T.S.B., emphasized that making flying safer was a shared effort across the industry. It has largely been successful, he said, but is continuing.
“When you put all of this together — the human, the machine, the environment, including the things the aircraft manufacturers are doing — those things combine to make our aviation system much more safe than it was a few decades ago,” Mr. Sumwalt said.