A Look at the Mysterious 'Black Box'

Illustration for article titled A Look at the Mysterious Black Box

Any time a plane goes down, the black box recorder, once again, becomes a mythical machine whispered about in the back alleys of news broadcasts. So Wired assembled a technological rundown on the device.


As many of you know, the steel or titanium black box is actually painted orange or red so it's easy to spot. And it's often actually two boxes (and in this case, one's a cylinder), with one "box" recording voice, one "box" recording data.


The voice recorder grabs two hours of audio feeds from pilot headsets and in-cockpit microphones. In recent years, it's gotten a digital upgrade that's less susceptible to environmental problems than tapes of yore.

The Flight Data Recorder (FDR) records measurements on about 88 different flight performance issues at an interval of once every few seconds. When the shit hits the fan (or, in some cases, the plane), the FDR records measurements at a faster rate.

But even with as neat as the black box may be from the standpoint of apocalyptic durability, it seems like a dated idea in an era when realtime wireless communication is available globally. [Wired and Getty]

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True, realtime wireless communication is available globally, but it's not truly global. There are plenty of places where coverage is spotty at best. It's also a very complex system that it tends to break down in isolated spots from time to time. What happens if an airplane happens to crash in a location where a cellular tower was recently destroyed by a lightning strike or fire, etc.? Does the FAA just toss up their hands and say "Sorry, I guess we'll never know. The data just never got recorded." Sometimes simple is better. Black boxes have proven themselves time and again. They're simple and they work. If we can recover them from the bottom of the ocean (think TWA 800) then we can recover them from virtually any airline crash.