Getting it right

I haven’t blogged specifically on the subject of aviation safety – and neither had the “other” Randy. That probably says as much as anything about the high level of safety in our global air transportation system.

But there is definitely a lot of curiosity right now about what a major airplane manufacturer does in the aftermath of an airplane accident or serious incident. So this is a good time to talk about it briefly.

The first thing we at Boeing do after learning of an accident is react like most everyone else - with shock and sadness when there is a loss of life or serious injuries, or with a sense of relief when we learn that the passengers and crew are safe.

But we also immediately mobilize the Boeing resources that may be required if we’re invited to participate – and when it’s one of our airplanes, we usually are. It’s important to point out that Boeing does not lead accident investigations, but we do have special knowledge and expertise that can be very valuable to government investigators.

Our colleagues in the industry who manufacture engines, avionics, and components also expect to be called on to assist investigations, as do airlines, pilot organizations, and others. There are internationally agreed-upon procedures for airplane accident investigations, as set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Under ICAO rules the investigative authority of the country in which an accident occurs takes the lead and determines who participates.

Normally, that agency will invite the U.S. accident-investigation authority, the National Transportation Safety Board, to put together an assistance team, and we are asked to join that team if one of our airplanes is involved. Similarly, our colleagues at Airbus would join a team formed by the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécurité de l’aviation civile.


Flight data units: A Digital Flight Data Acquisition Unit, or DFDAU (left), and Flight Data Recorder, or FDR (right). The FDR is considered one of the “black boxes” on a commercial airplane, but is typically painted bright orange.

Those of you who follow these investigations know that they can be like puzzles – you first need to gather the relevant information and then try to figure out what happened.

The “black boxes” - the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders - are tools to show what the airplane was doing and how other systems were working up to the time of the event.

Of course, as you also know, airplanes are made up of very complex systems, and investigations can seem to go on for quite some time. But you have to keep in mind that even when the answers seem obvious, each clue has to be studied against the whole.

Clearly, everyone who has a hand in the global aviation system wants to find the answers that will prevent a re-occurrence. So, if the investigation finds something that needs a closer look, we ask operators to check the worldwide fleet to see if anyone else has experienced the same event, or something similar.

All the data gathered during an investigation is checked to make sure investigators have the right answer or answers. Boeing’s role is to provide our expertise on the overall performance of the airplane, how the airplane systems work, how their structures are designed and built, and how they interact.

But again, it’s up to the investigative authority to ultimately solve the puzzle. In today’s world we often expect instant answers. And in that light, the investigative process seems ponderous. But you wouldn’t want it any other way, because the end result is a safer aviation system for everyone.

Comments (9)

Tony F. (Auckland, New Zealand):

I have always wondered why the flight data recorders are called "black boxes" but seem to always be orange in colour. I can understand that the boxes are orange because it may be easier to locate in a crash site but why have they been called "black boxes"?

G (France):

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

An FDR by any other name would remain an FDR.

Buzz (Brazil):

I believe that safety within aerospace industry is a must have. And that's why I think no one talks about it. One must be extremely careful when talking about it, just as you did.

But sometimes we just have to face our fears...

How's crisis management at Boeing?

Norman (Long Beach, California, United States):

Black Boxes are and have proven critical to the
safety of commercial flight the more parameters
the better, civil air policy has been made as a
result of what the NTSB has found in the recordings
of the black box's of crashed airliners.

In various countries as I have seen in television
aircraft parameters have been recorded on computer
systems on the ground as well as on black boxes,
I don't know if it is used today or unpracticle.

Black Boxes are not just part of airliners but also
used in ships and even in private cars.

william (wichita, ks):

does anyone know the approximate size of the blackbox?
it must have a large battery in there for a dc power supply.

James Cliborn (El Segundo, Calif., USA):

Why not just telemetry out the data in real time?

ashley palmer (Haslet TX USA):

A "Black Box" is jargon for a device that takes in a signal and processes it internally emitting either processed signals or just recording it. Any electronic device is to some extent a "Black Box" even a Radio or transponder. There have been a few mechanical, pneumatic or hydraulic "black boxes" but these are rare or for very old programs.

Paulo M (Johannesburg, RSA):

Air transportation safety has improved by perhaps a greater margin than the efficiency of the jetliners themselves over the past couple of decades because of thousands of people - like Maximum Mary, who have dedicated their lives to understanding exactly why an incident has occurred.

I think it's proper - however painful - that air accident reports are made public so that people learn from the mistakes, and solutions can be developed to prevent similar situations from becoming disastrous - such as the TCAS development after the tragic event of 1977.

Kirk G Scherz (Tukwila, Washington):

This is a very informative article. I appreciate the insight into the air safety investigation process.

My journey with Boeing Commercial Airplanes is a "flight" of lifelong learning.

Enjoy the SAFE flight >>>

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