Black Boxes Explained

In just about every commercial aircraft there are numerous microphones installed in the cockpit that record flight crew conversations. These microphones send the recorded audio to the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) which digitizes and stores them. The recorded conversations are useful in case of emergency as the audio can be reviewed and investigated.

To supplement the cockpit voice recorder, a flight data recorder (FDR) is installed in the aircraft as well. This device is used to record specific aircraft performance parameters and data. Together, these two integral devices can provide valuable insight into the operation of an aircraft.

In the early stages of CVR development, analog wire recording was used. This proved to be inefficient as it was later replaced by analog magnetic tape. These tapes used two reels that would automatically reverse when they reached the end of the tape. The previous requirement of thirty-minute recordings ultimately proved to be insufficient, as significant parts of the audio data were not useful in investigations. This led to a revamping of CVR operational policies. Modern CVRs use solid-state memory and digital recording techniques, which are now capable of recording four channels of audio data for a two-hour duration. These upgraded CVRs are more resistant to shock, moisture, and vibrations. Aircraft personnel can also incorporate a battery into the units, enabling the recording to continue for the whole duration of the flight. Some operators are trying to introduce on-board video recording in the flight deck but have been met with heavy resistance from pilot professional organizations and unions. Flight data recorders also serve a valuable purpose.

A flight data recorder is used to track the way an aircraft performs during the flight; it does so using sensors that are placed throughout the vessel. The recorded data includes time, pressure altitude, airspeed, vertical acceleration, magnetic heading, horizontal stabilizer, fuel flow, rudder-pedal position, and many more parameters. This data provides critical information on operating conditions. In addition, this data has also contributed to airplane system design improvements, and the ability to predict potential difficulties as an airplane grows old. An example of this would be utilizing FDR information to monitor the condition of the plane’s engine. An airliner can perform maintenance on it, or replace it completely, before a malfunction occurs. The recorder is typically installed in an area within the aircraft that is considered likely to survive a crash; often the tail section.

The two recording devices provide valuable information in the event of an emergency as they can shed light on what may have gone wrong.


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