Monday, June 08, 2009

Modern Planes, Yesterday's Commucations

Searchers have finally found the debris field for Air France flight 447. Almost two dozen bodies have been recovered, along with some luggage, tickets, and pieces of the fuselage.

What still remains missing, however, are the two "black boxes" from the aircraft. While some investigators consider their recovery essential to solving the mystery of what exactly happened to the doomed plane, their recovery is very much in doubt. They are probably under as much as two miles of ocean (that' almost as deep as the Titanic, which was found 2.5 miles down). But since it took several days to locate the debris on the surface, it likely drifted tens of miles because of winds and currents. It's not as if the the bulk of the wreckage is directly below the surface debris.

Now here's what I don't get: In this day and age of digital satellite communications, why are we still relying on freakin' tape recorders in our planes? Obviously this can be changed. In fact, what little is known about what happened is due to some information that was sent back to a control center by the plane's computers. Thanks to that, investigators are already focusing on 447's speed sensors. If they iced up, then that could have confused the plane's computer and thrown the aircraft out of control. But to confirm that theory, and further pin down the precise nature of the malfunction, the more detailed information contained on those recorders is needed.

Why can't the data sent back by modern jetliners be expanded to include everything that is included on those still missing recorders? Then when something does go wrong, there's never any worry about recovering the devices. The technology for such a system is clearly there. NASA has been getting detailed information on its missions for decades this way. Hell, if an astronaut farts, Houston knows about it before anyone else on the spaceship. To a large extent, it was the telemetry from the Columbia that helped the accident investigators determine why the shuttle broke up during its reentry. There was no need to look for black boxes.

It's time to bring the jet age into the 21st century.

0 thoughtful ramblings: