FAA mandates major aircraft 'Black Box' upgrade

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today mandated significant upgrades to aircraft cockpit voice and flight data recorders in an effort to help investigators retrieve more and better data from airplane accidents and mishaps.

Today's mandate means manufacturers such as Honeywell and L-3 Communications as well as operators of airplanes and helicopters with 10 or more seats, must employ voice recorders, also known as black boxes, that capture the last two hours of cockpit audio instead of the current 15 to 30 minutes. The new rules also require an independent backup power source for the voice recorders to allow continued recording for nine to 11 minutes if all aircraft power sources are lost or interrupted. Voice recorders also must use solid state technology instead of magnetic tape, which is vulnerable to damage and loss of reliability, the FAA said.

"These enhancements will give us more information about the causes of accidents and find ways to avoid them in the future," said Robert Sturgell, the FAA's acting administrator in a statement.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the Cockpit Voice Recorder, records radio transmissions and sounds in the cockpit, such as the pilot's voices and engine noises. The Flight Data Recorder, monitors parameters such as altitude, airspeed and heading. The older analog units use one-quarter inch magnetic tape as a storage medium and the newer ones use digital technology and memory chips. Both recorders are installed in the most crash survivable part of the aircraft, usually the tail section. Each recorder is equipped with an Underwater Locator Beacon to assist in locating in the event of an overwater accident. The device called a "pinger", is activated when the recorder is immersed in water. It transmits an acoustical signal on 37.5 KHz that can be detected with a special receiver. The beacon can transmit from depths down to 14,000 feet.

The new rule mandates that the recorders measure aircraft data more frequently than is now required, including the aircraft's primary flight control movements and the pilots' movement of the controls, the FAA said. The data recorders also must retain the last 25 hours of recorded information. These provisions affect new aircraft manufactured after March 7, 2010.

Details of the final rule are here: http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/recently_published/ . They include the following instructions:

* Within two years, require all aircraft required to have a cockpit voice recorder to be retrofitted with a device that receives, on dedicated channels, uninterrupted input from the boom or mask microphone and headphones of each crewmember; and uninterrupted input from an area microphone. During these recordings, a sidetone must be produced only when the transmitter or interphone is selected. Finally, all audio signals received by hand-held microphones must be recorded on the respective flight crewmember's channel when keyed to the "ON" position.

* Require that all newly manufactured cockpit voice recorders intended for use on airplanes have a minimum recording duration of two hours.

* By January 1, 2005, retrofit all airplanes that are required to carry a cockpit and data recorder with a system that is capable of recording the last two hours of audio; and is fitted with a 10 minute independent power source that is located with the device and that automatically engages and provides 10 minutes of operation whenever power to the recorder ceases, either by normal shutdown or by a loss of power to the bus.

* Require all aircraft manufactured after January 1, 2003, that are required to carry a cockpit and data recorder be equipped with two combination cockpit voice and data recording systems. One system should be located as close to the cockpit as practicable and the other as far aft as practicable. Both recording systems should be capable of recording all mandatory data parameters covering the previous 25 hours of operation and all cockpit audio and controller pilot datalink communications for the previous two hours of operation. The system located near the cockpit should be provided with an independent power source that engages automatically and provides 10 minutes of operation whenever normal aircraft power ceases. The aft system should be powered by the bus that provides the maximum reliability for operation without jeopardizing service to essential or emergency loads. The system near the cockpit should be powered by the bus that provides the second highest reliability for operation without jeopardizing service to essential or emergency loads.

* Require that cockpit and data flight recorders be redundant powered from separate generator buses with the highest reliability.

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