Air Crash tragedies – Time for a White Box?

The unfortunate series of air fiascoes this year makes us search for missing wreckage in technology waters too – the good old Black Box

Pratima Harigunani
New Update

YES, it is coloured orange for a reason but that colour is not helping much as investigation teams have been seen exerting helplessly looking for it more than once in the last few months. That Black Box has turned more elusive when desperately needed for a dissection of that big ‘what happened’ question that hovers over all disaster-submerged planes – from that eerily-vaporised 370 one to the recent AirAsia debacle.


Even as relatives, regulators and industry experts struggle with their own set of ordeals and grief, this clever box is what almost every eye seeks to at least understand the innards of a sad and stubbornly mysterious disappearance.

Black Box is perhaps the most ingenious trick ever invented by the aviation industry. This secret treasure trove of mid-air action and coffin of big data has always helped investigators in its own small and big ways. But the recent loop of mishaps have made some amateurs and even a few experts wake up and ask – is the Black Box equipped with enough that a last resort like this requires?

This box is usually housed inside an airplane or helicopter, and as the flight recorder records the conversation of the pilots or keeps consistent, relevant logs of controls, sensors and other equipments from both the tail and in-cockpit happenings, it assists authorities and tragedy surgeons well in peeling of layers of an un-anticipated accident or a tragic event.


They have started boarding our planes as long back as the late 1950s, and have evolved well with not only excellent flight data recorder (FDR) and voice recorder capabilities but also advanced parameters on the flight conditions of an aircraft (speed, altitude, acceleration; to name a few) but have also donned extreme malleability of withstanding extreme temperatures or pressure conditions and ability to send signals even if they lie hidden inside the sea or a wreckage to a reasonable degree.

For instance, in the French AF447 case, the boxes unearthed two years post the mishap from an underwater mountain range in the Atlantic, did assist in putting a finger on problems around speed and weather indications faltering that was faced by the flight instead of what guesstimates were pointing at.

But the contours around the box, or let’s say inside it, are changing interestingly again. Black Box in engineering refers to a set of circuitry or workings that is not easy for the outer eye to comprehend. A White Box, by contrast, is fairly easy when it comes to grasping what’s happening inside it.


Today, the Black Box is facing a unique identity dilemma as it confronts questions on ‘what’s inside it and why all that stuff is proving inadequate’ when the world needs it the most.

From the question of longevity of its batteries to the ability of streaming live-data for on-ground engineers; the box is being unwrapped for a reality-check.

The doubts started beeping more loudly when the underwater signals perceived to be coming from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370's black-box recorder started dying on account of apparent battery-conk-off and thus resulting into search efforts diluting in further deep seabeds.


A life window as narrow as about 30 days makes a search effort as massive, crucial and unrelenting as that of MH 370 indeed suffer daunting prospects when battery-pings stop helping much.

Another big pothole pops when aviation industry almost cohesively wonders at the possibility of streaming live data from planes straight back to the ground at the slightest trigger of an emergency; a question that assumes all the more weight in a world where ‘Big Data’ is as familiar a word as ‘Big Brother’.

The effectiveness and possible obsolescence of current boxes have started coming into radar since the plane wreckage 2001 attacks on the World Trade towers and some tragic air crashes like the Air France one, Airbus A330-203, because of their dismal post-incident state and poor transmission of data needed.


Satellites or stuff like Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS), a new-era constellation of Internet and new streaming technologies to ground-servers, are flying several feet above the present state and relevant abilities of Black Boxes, at least in theory and in heated-conversations about technology.

But concerns, modalities and status-quo around safety, aviation standards, cost prohibitive-levels in a low-margin business model like airlines, and regulation boundaries have kept the theory from taking off in pragmatic runways.

Nevertheless, the apprehended AirAsia Indonesia jet crash has raised questions on technology’s role in aviation skies again when it comes to what it can and cannot do.


Did the plane climbed too steeply to avoid that storm or did it succumb to bad weather? Questions like these continue to billow and the Black Box hopes to carry some critical answers but we also need to ask some future-borne questions too. At least much in time before technology’s blue-eyed box is lost to a different Bermuda Triangle of sorts?

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