Think outside the box

Orland Outland is the author of six books. His latest is Coming Out: A Handbook for Men.

Each time there’s a major airline disaster, the story is the same. Vast amounts of time and money are spent looking for the plane’s “black box"—the flight voice and data recorders that can tell investigators what happened in the plane’s last minutes. In the 1996 case of TWA Flight 800, several days passed before divers could even begin the hazardous and expensive process of retrieving the box from the ocean floor—time which, if the explosion on Flight 800 had been a terrorist act, would have been incredibly important time lost to investigators.

By now, there’s little hope that investigators will find the black boxes from the two flights that crashed into the World Trade Center and, in doing so, find some clues as to how the terrorists took over the planes. But while the WTC disaster has prompted a massive review of security procedures, the modifications being recommended to the now 40-year-old black box technology fail to address the key issue—when a plane goes down, it’s still taking its secrets with it in the black box.

A recent Scientific American article lists improvements the FAA wants in black boxes, including an expanded list of stored instrument readings and a backup power supply. But this only shores up the old technology.

The black boxes should no longer be passive containers of information but rather active transmitters, constantly sending the information to the ground.

“The way forward is to link what is going on in the cockpit with the [airlines'] engineering department. Every single system on an aircraft can be remotely viewed,” said Phillip Butterworth-Hayes, editor of Jane’s Aircraft Component Systems, in a recent New Scientist article. He noted that many planes already offer data links to passengers that allow them to surf the Net and send and receive e-mail.

In the same New Scientist article, airline pilot Edward Downs said he thought constantly sending so much information might jam the airwaves. However, the first thing to do with this information is encrypt it (to prevent the wrong people from learning too much about in-air procedures) and, in the process, also to compress it. There’s nothing new or difficult about this technology; submarines send most all their communications in these compressed encrypted “bursts.”

Airline pilots might object to the loss of privacy involved in recording their every casual conversation, but the system could be set up so that no human being hears these conversations unless the flight goes awry—in fact, the signals could be automatically deleted, unencrypted, at the safe arrival of every flight.

This system would save the time and money spent looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, often a dangerous quest, and would shave crucial time off criminal investigations related to plane crashes.

It’s time the airlines and the FAA started thinking "outside the box."