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Monday, July 28, 2003

U.S. Lawmakers Push Plan to Upgrade 'Black Boxes'

Security benefit could propel passage of safety legislation

Legislation introduced in Congress last week represents a convergence of concern over safety and security. The bill proposes to require upgrading flight data and cockpit voice recorders, to have the government pay for the equipment, and to add deployable recorders, which would eject a protected housing containing critical data moments before impact.

Such recorders have been used successfully on military aircraft for years, expediting data recovery and providing accident investigators with critical information. The legislation offers a business opportunity to the half-dozen manufacturers of flight recorder systems.

Dubbed the "Safe Aviation and Flight Enhancement Act," or the SAFE Act for short, passage of the bill this year is problematic, but the legislation (H.R. 2632) sets the stage for possible passage in the future. For the present, the bill reflects a growing congressional concern about the need for improved flight recorders in order to reconstruct the causes of accidents and to provide a more detailed picture of terrorist attacks on airliners.

The bill also reflects impatience with the negligible rate of progress in the executive branch, where recommendations for upgraded cockpit voice and flight data recorders (CVR/FDR) have gone unimplemented for years.

Bipartisan support for the SAFE Act, from legislators dealing with aviation safety and security issues, respectively, once again shows a congressional willingness to intervene in the face of perceived gridlock in the executive branch. For example, Congress required traffic alert collision avoidance systems (TCAS) for cargo airliners when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandated TCAS only for passenger airliners, and Congress overrode administration objections to arming pilots with handguns. Now known as the federal flight deck officer (FFDO) program, the notion of armed pilots seemed only a remote possibility, yet Congress showed a surprising level of support. A similar wellspring of unanticipated support could push passage of the SAFE Act sooner rather than later, because it links the needs of aviation safety to the "wartime" demands of homeland security.

Over the years, the crashworthy standards for flight recorders have been improved to the point where the so-called "black boxes" must be designed to withstand the impact equivalent to an automobile going 60 mph coming to a dead stop in half an inch (see ASW, June 9). But even if the black boxes "survive" the crash, they can be at the bottom of the ocean, where it can take days or weeks to locate and retrieve them. That delay can mean a time of great uncertainty in determining whether an air disaster was the result of a safety shortfall or a terrorist attack. For this reason, the SAFE Act calls for the installation of deployable recorders. Located flush on the tailfin, the spring-loaded data package with its satellite-linked locator beacon would pop off the aircraft, falling safely beyond the crash site. At sea, the deployable recorder would float on the water.

The 'what if' question

Instead of uncertainty prevailing for days or weeks while traditional recorders are located and recovered, the deployable recorder is seen as an important tool in the war against terrorism.

"I come to the SAFE initiative through my work on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security, where we frequently face the 'what if' questions as we try to prepare for and prevent a terrorist attack," said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.).

If a deployable recorder had been installed on United Airlines [OTC: UALAQ] Flight 93, which crashed Sept. 11, 2001, into a Pennsylvania field as passengers tried to regain control of the airplane seized by hijackers, Price said, "We might know exactly how the terrorists gained access to the cockpit. We might know better what transpired in the cockpit before the plane went down."

The tragedy of Flight 93 put the term "Let's roll" into the national lexicon, but the limited insights into what happened were gleaned almost entirely from cell phone conversations, not from the muffled sounds of struggle captured on the cockpit voice recorder (CVR).

Price also pointed to the abortive Dec. 22, 2001, attempt by "shoe bomber" Richard Reid to blow up American Airlines [NYSE: AMR] Flight 63 (see ASW, July 22, 2002). "If, God forbid, he had been successful, that plane would have gone down in the Atlantic Ocean, and the data and voice recorders would have likely been lost forever, thousands of feet under the sea. We might never have known what went wrong," Price said.

If Reid had been successful, the airplane's loss might well have been attributed to another center wing tank (CWT) explosion, which downed TWA Flight 800 in 1996.

In this respect, the inclusion of deployable recorders in the SAFE Act addresses the security issue.

Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), another architect of the bill, also stressed the security aspect. "Unfortunately, on 9/11, we never recovered the black boxes from the World Trade Center attacks, and the cockpit voice recorder from the Pentagon crash was destroyed beyond use. We also lost critical information from the last moments of TWA Flight 800, and it took 13 days to recover the black boxes from EgyptAir 990," he said.

"We live in a new world of aviation, which includes increased air traffic, increased over water routes, and a heightened threat of terrorism. We must ensure that the black box technology we utilize keeps pace with the growing demands and threats facing commercial aviation," Duncan declared.

Action instead of inaction

He pointed out that the legislation would implement long-standing recommend-ations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Issued in 1999, those recommendations remain unrequited. The recommendations were issued before the crash of the EgyptAir jet but after the Sept. 2, 1998, crash of Swissair Flight 111 in Canada. Lost CVR and FDR data in that crash prompted the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada to call for dual recorders and independent back-up power supplies for assured continuity of data capture (see ASW, March 15, 1999). Those TSB recommendations were endorsed and incorporated by the NTSB in its recommendations.

Four years later, those recommendations remain in an "unacceptable response" status, with an FAA promise to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in late 2001 long past. An FAA official said, "We are currently developing a proposed rulemaking to respond to the [1999] recommendations. While we cannot discuss the details of a rulemaking action in progress, it is accurate to say that the proposed rule has been through extensive executive coordination within the government."

The SAFE Act specifically mentioned the lack of progress on the NTSB's recommendations. It has taken them a step further by adding deployable recorders. Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said deployable recorders were not included in the 1999 recommendations because he and other board members were not aware of their existence, and the U.S. military's successful experience with them.

Hall said the SAFE Act features "three R's" of "redundancy, reliability, and resources." Specifically:

Redundancy: The act calls for two pairs of cockpit voice and flight data recorder installations, one pair aft in the airplane, and one pair forward. The forward installation would minimize the potential for lost data from wires being separated further aft. The aft location maximizes survivability of the non-deployable recorders the NTSB had in mind.

Reliability: The act calls for the kind of battery backup the NTSB was seeking in case of loss of aircraft electrical power. The call for a 2-hour recording capability is another aspect of reliability, assuring that important data will not be "taped over" on more limited 30-minute recorders.

Resources: As in the case of federal funding for reinforced cockpit doors, the act provides similar federal dollars for upgraded recorders.

"If the taxpayers are funding operational shortfalls for the airlines, then the federal government can help fund something like this, which is so essential to aviation safety and security," Hall said. Earlier this year, he called for installing deployable recorders in airliners (see ASW, May 12).

The SAFE Act was hailed as overdue by the National Air Disaster Alliance (NADA). "I am thrilled with the growing bipartisan support. We need the NTSB recommendations for upgraded black boxes mandated sooner rather than later. Later has come," said NADA president Gail Dunham. The organization represents family members of the victims of air disasters.

"The aviation industry makes safety and security decisions based on cost-benefit analysis - and the last decade proved that improved recorders would have paid for themselves many times over," Dunham said.

The deployable recorder, sometimes known as an ejectable recorder, combines cockpit voice/flight data recorders and an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) in a single unit. Lodged flush with the tailfin, this "airfoil unit" departs the aircraft milliseconds before impact, activated by sensors. The unit is designed to "eject" and "fly" away from the crash site, to survive the terminal velocity of fall, and to float on the water indefinitely.

The SAFE Act has a limited agenda. It calls for implementing the NTSB recommendations - with the added benefit of a deployable recorder in the aft unit - only for new aircraft ordered on or after Jan. 1, 2005. The NTSB's recommendations could involve a massive retrofit program. While it could cost more than $60,000 to equip aircraft with the dual/deployable recorder technology, government funding should negate objections from manufacturers and airlines. However, foreign manufacturers and airlines will not be eligible for such support, which was the case for the reinforced cockpit door program, although it is evident from the wording of the legislation that they would be required to meet its recorder provisions.

In any event, the cost implications for adding deployable recorders are modest. Under the NTSB's 1999 recommendations, operators would be required to install two sets of combination recorder systems. The SAFE Act basically calls for making the second set deployable, thereby taking the 1999 recommendations one step farther. Under the 1999 recommendations, operators would get both sets of recorders for free - they would not have to pay for the one set they are currently required by law to carry.

Hall maintained that the legislation's passage is paramount. "We could be sitting here for another five years with no progress, with five years of aircraft production and no requirement for state-of-the-art recorders," he said. >> Hall, e-mail jhall@hallassoc.net; Dunham, e-mail GADunham@aol.com <<

The Safe Aviation Flight Enhancement (SAFE) Act

Aircraft affected:

Jet aircraft with 10 or more seats or greater than 12,500 lbs. maximum takeoff weight.

Propeller aircraft with 20 or more seats or greater than 19,000 lbs. takeoff weight.

(ASW note: By these definitions, cargo aircraft are included.)

Significant dates:

Regulations for upgraded recorders required by the act to be issued not later than 90 days after its date of enactment.

Upgraded recorders to be installed in all aircraft ordered on or after Jan. 1, 2005. (ASW note: retrofit not required for existing aircraft.)

Estimated costs:

To manufacturers and airlines: No cost.

To government:

Year 1: $12 million to $15 million, for non-recurring engineering and certification for 12 aircraft types.

Year 2: $32 million, for 1 CVR/DFDR fixed and 1 CVR/DFDR deployable, for 500 aircraft.

Difficult or Destroyed Recent fatal commercial accidents where fixed recorders were destroyed or difficult to recover quickly.
Disaster
FDR Re-covered
CVR Re-covered
Notes
China Airlines, Flight CI 611, May 25, 2002. Taiwan Strait. 35 days 34 days In 210 ft. (65 meters). Underwater locator beacon (ULB) signal detected 4 days after crash. Most of subsequent time to recovery spent refining signal location.
World Trade Center attacks. American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175. Sept. 11, 2001. No No Never found in subsequent removal of towers' wreckage.
Pentagon attack. American Airlines Flight 77. Sept. 11, 2001. 3 days 3 days CVR damaged beyond repair. No data recovered.
EgyptAir Flight 990. October 31, 1999. 60 miles south of Nantucket, Mass. 9 days 13 days In 250 ft. (76 meters) of water. ULB detached. Deep drone literally stumbled on its valuable discovery.
Swissair Flight 111. Sept. 2, 1998. Peggys Cove, Halifax, Canada. 4 days 9 days In 180 ft. (55 meters) of water.
SilkAir Flight 185. Dec. 19, 1997. Palembang, Indonesia. 5 days 20 days ULBs detached - adding time to locate CVR.
TWA Flight 800. July 17, 1996. Off coast near East Moriches, NY. 7 days 7 days During recovery period, public fear was heightened by questions of a possible terrorist attack or U.S. military involvement.
ValuJet Flight 592. May 11, 1996. Everglades swamp near Miami, Fla. 2 days 15 days Both ULBs did not work. Someone accidentally stepped on CVR.
Birgenair Flight ALW-201. Feb. 7, 1996. Crashed off coast of Dominican Republic. 21 days 21 days Near limit of 30-day ULB battery life. Recorder recovery in 7,200 ft. (2,200 meters) of deep water; cost $1.4 million.
Sources: ASC, NTSB, Dominican Republic General Directorate of Civil Aviation, DRS Technologies

Three Strikes

Status of three safety board recommendations:

  • Two hours. Recommendation A-99-016, issued March 19, 1999. Require retrofit after Jan. 1, 2005, of all cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) on all airplanes required to carry both a CVR and a digital flight data recorder (DFDR) with a CVR that is capable of recording the last two hours of audio and is fitted with an independent power source that automatically provides 10 minutes of operation whenever aircraft power to the recorder ceases.

Status of FAA action. Final rule not issued. Open - unacceptable response.

  • Two pairs. Recommendation A-99-017, issued March 19, 1999. Require all aircraft manufactured after Jan. 1, 2003, to be equipped with two combination (CVR/DFDR) recording systems. One system should be located as close to the cockpit as practicable and the other as far aft as practicable.

Status of FAA action. Final rule not issued. Open - unacceptable response.

  • Two power supplies. Recommendation A-99-018, issued March 19, 1999. Require that CVRs, DFDRs and redundant combination flight recorders be powered from separate generator buses with the highest reliability. The aft system should be powered by the bus that provides the maximum reliability without jeopardizing service to essential or emergency loads, whereas the system near the cockpit should be powered by the bus that provides the second highest reliability for operation.

Status of FAA action. Final rule not issued. Open - unacceptable response.

Source: NTSB, status report as of July 22

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