Friday, July 23, 2010

His Casket is Actually Orange

According to Yahoo News, David Warren, the inventor of the aircraft "black box", died last week. He was an Australian, and his father died in an airplane crash when he was nine. Here's an Australian article, with different details.

"Black box" is the nickname given to both the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, both of which seem to have been included in Mr. Warren's invention. To come up with the idea of such devices was pretty visionary in the 1950s when instant recording was a novelty and data recording usually on paper reels. I wonder if the idea was germinating in his mind waiting for the technology to be up to the task. And then he made the idea into a working model. Both the idea and the technology could easily have died without being adopted, as I'm sure many useful safety ideas have, so credit to Australia for putting it into law.

The CVR/FDR comprise a peculiar piece of safety technology. They do no good whatsoever to the pilots or passengers whose aircraft they are installed in, but can provide huge benefits to others, later. I have worked in an airplane with a CVR and in another that was supposed to have one, but for which management successfully obtained a waiver from Transport to spend the money on a more immediately useful piece of technology. Most of the time the airplane was flown single crew, which I think was the grounds for the exemption.

Neither article cites Mr. Warren's last words. Do you think they were "Oh shit" or "What's it doing now"?


Colin said...

And a company just announced a new flight data recorder which will constantly feed the data to a satellite (and presumable down to storage on a server). That way it doesn't matter if the black box is lost.

(Technically, I think the Airbus planes do a lot of this already. I know that fir the Air France plane lost in the Atlantic they knew a *lot* about what was happening before it went down because the plane was phoning home with problems.)

Rob said...

Much to my shame Australia didn't do as much for the development of the black box as you suggest. He was laughed at by the 1950s form of CASA, the RAAF and the Government. He had to go to the UK for the support to develop the idea.

But as you say Australia was the first country to demand the use of the black box by law.

david said...

How about "Watch this!"

Anonymous said...

I thought only journalists called a data recorder a "black box"?

In electronics/avionics a "black box" is a component whose function you know but whose workings are opaque to you. Data recorders are pretty simple so maybe it's appropriate they're the ones that aren't black.

Last words: "No problems here!"

Aviatrix said...

Yeah, I'll call it a CVR or an FDR as appropriate, but I wouldn't think a colleague insane if they said black box. Judging by one of the articles, at the time a recorder was a mysterious black box that the non techies didn't have to understand.

hawk205 said...

Love the title of the post. I wonder if it was...
My story of the titel balck box was data recorders use in flight test by manufactures and USAF were in fact black boxes that no one the flight line understood. hence the name. reports picked on the name just like they have the term tarmac previously known in my day as the ramp - the small place to keep your airplane of the mud on grass fields-

Ed Davies said...

When a small British company making similar devices for gliders produced a recorder which was black I tried to persuade them to call it the "orange box".

EW Avionics

(Top recorder in that picture.)

They didn't bite and it's, rather tediously, just called the EW Model 'D'.

It's used mostly for competition and badge flight verification and also for post-flight analysis for training purposes but it and units like it have been used for accident investigation on a few occasions.

I wrote this section of its documentation at the request of the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch when they were trying to get data out of a damaged unit which had been in a mid-air collision.

Thing I found interesting from chatting with the investigator on that accident and with a friend who works on flight data recorders for British Airways, particularly after the 777 oppsie at Heathrow, is how much information they can often get from devices which are not specifically designed as recorders: GPSes, engine controllers and so on. An accident can be pretty severe and still have individual chips survive and be readable with specialist equipment even if the box around it and even the board it's mounted on is pretty munged.

Ed Davies said...

There's actually a tighter linkage between the aviation use of the term "black box" and the electronics version than you might think.

During WWII bombers were often equipped with devices (e.g., jammers) which the crew weren't told the function of - maybe just when to switch them on or off. Sometimes the boxes didn't actually do anything - they were just there to puzzle the Germans if the got hold of the wreak of an aircraft.

These were, obviously, referred to as black boxes in both senses.

dpierce said...

I've heard "LWD box" used ... Last Will Dictation box

Peter Warren said...

We considered painting his coffin orange, but chose a plain wooden box suitably adorned. See Reuters photo

As for his last words, and he was very clear on this - "I was a lucky bastard" - which was inscribed on the top of his coffin.

Peter Warren, son of David Warren, Melbourne, Australia

Aviatrix said...

Peter, my condolences on your loss of a man who I bet was a terrific father, as well as a great advocate of aviation safety. I'm delighted and honoured to have you answer both my flippant questions in such a definitive manner.

Peter Warren said...

You're very welcome :-)