Is the black box really black?

Last Updated 21 April 2014, 14:49 IST
Let’s get one thing clear: The “black box” isn’t black. It’s orange. Before airlines made that colour standard for their flight recorders, some Boeings used a yellow sphere, and the British had a gizmo called the Red Egg. So why do they call it “black”? 

One explanation goes this way: In 1939, an aviation engineer named Francois Hussenot devised a means of capturing an aircraft’s history to a box of photographic film. 

Onboard sensors flashed into the box through calibrated mirrors and traced a running tab of flight parameters, including altitude, air speed and the position of the cockpit controls. 

Because the device worked like a camera, its insides had to be in total darkness; thus, perhaps, the “black”-ness of the box.

Away from prying hands

Hussenot is said to have thought his box so important that he buried a prototype in the sand dunes near the coast of Aquitaine in June 1940 to keep it out of German hands.

After the war, technology for flight recorders became widespread. 

Some devices used photography; others scratched the data onto spools of metal foil. None recorded cockpit audio, however. 

Then in 1953, an Australian chemist named David Warren was asked to help find the cause of recent jet-plane crashes. 

“I kept thinking to myself, if only we could recapture those last few seconds,” he told an interviewer in 1985, “it would save all this argument and uncertainty.” 

Warren’s version of the device stored audio to a bobbin of magnetised steel wire. 
In his telling, the name “black box” came from a British government official, who in 1958 referred to it using World War-II-era Air Force slang for subtle avionics.

By the mid-1960s, flight-data and cockpit voice recorders were mandatory for commercial airplanes. Photographic film and magnetic wire were replaced by other storage media, including solid-state memory (the kind used in flash drives). 

Some have advocated that black boxes should beam their data up to satellites as a flight progresses. 

Black boxes must be painted orange or bright yellow, but they needn’t look like boxes.
According to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the device may come in a variety of shapes including spheres, cylinders and domes — so long as it’s not too small for investigators to find among the plane’s debris.

It should have a label on its side, with letters at least one inch high that spell out: “Flight Recorder — Do not open.”

(Published 21 April 2014, 14:48 IST)

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