Safety Board Recommends Action to Prevent Another Jetliner From Disappearing

Ten passenger planes have gone missing without a trace since 2000, according to Harper’s magazine Index in the March 2015 issue of the magazine. The Aviation Safety Network, based in the Netherlands, shows 85 aircraft — including passenger airliners, corporate jets, cargo and military — have utterly disappeared since 1948.

Hundreds of lives have vanished. Officials have some idea of the location (ocean, country), but beyond that, no specifics.

The most recent disappearance was Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, with 239 aboard. The airplane is believed to have plummeted into the sea off the west coast of Australia after exhausting its fuel on March 8, 2014. Authorities mounted a great search — patrol planes in the air, ships on the water’s surface, and submersibles deep in the depths — and they have not found a thing. The critical flight data and cockpit voice recorder (FDR/CVR), mounted in the tail of the aircraft, remain hidden in their watery grave. Without these recorders, details of the B777’s disappearance remain an abiding mystery.

A visual search, hoping to find floating debris from MH370

A visual search, hoping to find floating debris from MH370

 

Below the waves, the search area off the coast of Australia; 3,000 foot depressions and summits that make the European Alps look like foothills complicate the search for the wreckage of MH370

Below the waves, the search area off the coast of Australia; 3,000 foot depressions and summits that make the European Alps look like foothills complicate the search for the wreckage of MH370

Even though it was a foreign airliner lost far beyond the borders of the United States, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recently urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to undertake technical improvements that would make a disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 a thing of the past. The January 22, 2015, letter also urges the FAA to mandate additional flight recorder improvements, to include a closed-circuit television recorder to capture the scene in the cockpit during the last moments of crisis.

“Technology has reached a point where we shouldn’t have to search hundreds of miles of ocean floor in a frantic race to find these valuable boxes,” declared NTSB Acting Chairman Chris Hart, referring to the FDR/CVR. “In this day and age, lost aircraft should be a thing of the past.”

Indeed, technology to preclude utterly losing the whereabouts of a crashed plane has been available since at least 2000 but has not been ordered installed on airliners by that sleepy backwater of aviation safety, the FAA.

Maybe the NTSB’s recent letter will goad the FAA to rise from its regulatory torpor and take action, although the record of the FAA’s dilatory and partial response to such letters from the NTSB is, frankly, discouraging.

Nevertheless, details of the NTSB’s letter warrant scrutiny.

All scheduled and charter airliners operating over water and more than two hours from a diversionary airfield should be equipped with the capability to transmit to a ground station “sufficient information to establish the location where an aircraft terminates flight as the result of an accident within 6 nautical miles of the point of impact,” the NTSB recommended.

Restricting the recommendation to extended flights over water leaves out flights over trackless areas on land that are not covered by ground based radars. The Amazon River basin in South America, for example, has vast areas not covered by radar. An airplane traversing this huge wilderness could crash and be swallowed up by the watery muck and jungle; the remnants could be extremely difficult to locate.

It would have been better to word the applicability of the recommendation to all transport-category aircraft operating over regions not covered by ground surveillance radar.

Transmitting the location of the crash site within six miles of the point of impact was taken from the French investigation into the June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 crash into the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. It took almost two years of searching to recover the flight recorders. The French accident analysis authorities (Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses, or BEA) determined that it is feasible with current technology to broadcast an aircraft’s location to within a six miles circle of the point of impact. The NTSB sensibly piggy-backed on the French finding.

Significantly, the NTSB recommendation does not include a timeline for accomplishment. Without a deadline, the FAA will dilly-dally and stretch out any action for years. The absence of a deadline is unfortunate, as the technology for broadcasting the location of crash and key recorder information already exists, and in a form that is commercially applicable to the airlines.

A small company in Canada, FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, has been selling a system that beams flight recorder information to orbiting satellites when trouble with the aircraft is sensed. The airplane’s location, its flight attitude, and other essential parameters captured on the flight recorders would then be beamed to a ground station; the information would be available almost instantly to those on the ground searching for answers. Known as the Automated Flight Information Reporting System, or AFIRS, a Canadian operator of B737s and DHC-8s has already bought and installed the system, as the carrier operates in the northern reaches of Canada. The wilderness is frequently beyond the coverage of ground-based radars.

With a requirement to equip their jetliners with an AFIRS-like technology, FLYHT could license its system for production by major avionics companies and installation could proceed on an accelerated basis. An NTSB deadline would spur this activity.

The NTSB letter reprises an earlier sensible recommendation already rejected by the FAA. The January 22 NTSB letter offers additional information; if unlucky in its recommendations, the safety board is nevertheless persistent. The subject: cockpit videos. The camera would record crew actions in the moments before a crash, key instrument displays, switches and flight control positions. The Safety Board was careful to note that the faces of pilots would not be recorded. Rather, the camera would be mounted above and to the rear of pilots, capturing only their arm and hand positions and the instrument panel.

The cockpit of the B777, essentially showing the view to be captured by the cockpit image recorder. Pilots' faces would not be seen, but their manipulation of knobs and flight controls would be captured, as well as displays  on the instrument panel (or displays obscured by smoke).

The cockpit of the B777, essentially showing the view to be captured by
the cockpit image recorder. Pilots’ faces would not be seen, but their manipulation of knobs and flight controls would be captured, as well as displays on the instrument panel (or displays obscured by smoke).

The FAA had opposed this recommendation in January 2000, largely due to pilots’ concerns that the videos would find their way onto the Internet as voyeuristic “snuff films”. Although the FAA rejection of that date did not specifically mention pilot union opposition, that was part of the overall criticism at the time of the NTSB proposal. The FAA simply said, “The FAA has no rulemaking underway at this time to mandate the installation of cockpit image systems as described in this safety recommendation.”

The NTSB offered new arguments in favor of cockpit videos:

“In its final report on the Air France Flight 447 accident, the BEA cited difficulties in reconstructing critical instrument panel indications that were available to the flight crew. Consequently, the BEA recommended that ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] require public transport flights with passengers be equipped with a cockpit image recorders that can record the instrument panel and also that guidelines be established to guarantee the confidentiality of the recordings.”

Further:

“On September 3, 2010, a Boeing 747-44AF, operated by United Parcel Service (UPS), crashed while attempting to return to Dubai International Airport following an in-flight cargo fire. Some critical information, such as flight instrument indications, switch positions, and aircraft system conditions, could not be confirmed by the available evidence. The final report, prepared by the United Arab Emirates General Civil Aviation Authority … specifically cited the lack of cockpit imagery as a detriment to the timeliness of the investigation and delivery of critical safety recommendations …

“Further, in the Air France and UPS crashes, the accident aircraft were equipped with FDR’s that greatly exceeded the minimum parameter requirements. However, in these accidents, critical information related to the cockpit environments conditions (for example, crew actions and visibility [e.g., smoke from the cargo fire]), instrument indications available to crewmembers, and the degradation of aircraft systems was not available to investigators. The NTSB concludes that image recordings would provide critical information about flight crew actions and the cockpit environment [e.g., smoke filled] that has not been provided by CVRs and FDRs.”

And, the NTSB glumly noted:

“(A)fter 15 years the FAA still has not mandated installing cockpit image recorders … Therefore, Safety Recommendations A-00-30 and -31 are classified ‘Closed — Unacceptable Action/Superseded.’ “

The NTSB’s recommendation letter of January 2015 supersedes all previous frustrating correspondence with the FAA on this issue.

The dismal history of cockpit image recorders does not bode well for prompt and sustained action on broadcasting the airplane’s location and key FDR parameters in the moments before impact.

To gauge the FAA ‘s willingness and commitment, the NTSB should have recommended the broadcast capability be installed within three years. Absent a mind-focusing deadline, the FAA is quite likely to dawdle, taking 10 or more years to solve the problem (if at all), when the capability already exists.