'Black box'-or Pandora's?

Aug 1, 2007 - 9:00 AM

If your car is less than 10 years old, there might be a little computer buried somewhere inside that records events. If you're in a crash, the police, the insurance adjustor, or maybe even the National Transportation Safety Board will retrieve that computer, download its data and use it to figure out exactly what happened.

Your business jet likely has a similar device-the classic "black box" of prominent accident fame, which probably includes a quick- access recorder to store operational data. It may also have computers that act like the automotive event recorder, storing data about flight and engine controls, environmental systems and aircraft electronics. (The actual recorders, by the way, are bright yellow or orange, not black, to facilitate their location after a crash.)

All of this information is tremendously useful for efficient operation of your jet and especially helpful when mechanics are trying to troubleshoot a tough-to-nail-down problem. However, the proliferation of onboard data recorders raises many questions about how the information is used, who owns it and what happens to it during routine operations or after an accident. Disposition of the data after an accident could be critical, and you may want to discuss this issue with your aviation department manager or charter provider to make sure you and your company won't be compromised by information leaks.

A business jet capable of carrying 10 or more people must carry a flight data recorder- the so-called black box. Jets that require two pilots and have six or more passenger seats must also carry a cockpit voice recorder. There are rules about how this equipment can be used in the wake of an accident and who has access to it, and an FAA regulation states that the agency won't use the information in any civil penalty or certificate action.

The National Transportation Safety Board also has rules and policies regarding data recorders. For example, NTSB personnel aren't allowed to release any information from the flight data or cockpit voice recorder until it becomes part of the public docket during an accident investigation. "FDRs [flight data recorders] contain highly sensitive material and unauthorized release of information by Safety Board employees is grounds for disciplinary action," according to the NTSB.

The NTSB acknowledges that any recorded data belongs to the owner or operator of the aircraft and should be returned to that owner or operator after an accident investigation. This could be a problem when there are multiple owners, such as a fractional share arrangement, so share buyers may want to clarify the data-ownership situation in sales contracts.

Modern airplanes like large Gulfstream jets (models G350 through G550), Hawker Beechcraft turboprops and jets, Bombardier Challengers and others now carry maintenance computers that record an enormous amount of data about the airplane, including its location. In addition, Gulfstream is testing a system that automatically e-mails an electronic file containing all that data to Gulfstream or a designated recipient when the airplane begins its descent toward a destination. Gulfstream's product-support team checks the data to see whether the airplane is having any problems that need to be corrected before the next flight. Other manufacturers, like Hawker Beechcraft and Eclipse Aviation, are considering similar systems in an effort to improve aircraft dispatch reliability and availability.

This proliferation of data being sent back and forth could cause problems. For example, what if a manufacturer uses the information to deny warranty coverage or an insurance company gets hold of the data and denies a claim? The data, after all, shows how the aircraft is being flown and could be used to spot questionable piloting practices.

Gulfstream asked the owners of the airplanes involved in evaluating its new system whether they minded sharing their data with the manufacturer. "So far, all have complied," said Jim Gallagher, Gulfstream's program director for aircraft health and trend monitoring systems. "Certainly we believe it will help them. They can choose whether we get it or not. Obviously, it's the customer's data, not ours. If they don't want us to get it, that's their prerogative."

The question of data ownership "naturally comes up, and most operators are very cautious about any use of their data," said Douglas Davidson, Hawker Beechcraft manager of customer support for the Hawker 4000 program. Davidson added that if third parties-such as a non-factory-owned maintenance shop-are involved in analyzing the data, it may make sense to have them sign a non-disclosure agreement. For its part, Hawker Beechcraft won't release customer data, nor will Honeywell, which makes the Hawker 4000's central maintenance computer.

Owners shouldn't worry much about airplane-generated data getting into the wrong hands, Davidson noted, because the data is in a format that requires special software to read. "Unless you have the secret decoder ring, the data is useless," he said. "It's just binary."

More airplanes are going the digital route, generating megabytes of operational data. While proliferation of this information hasn't yet caused any significant problems, it's still a good idea to make sure that it is protected and that all parties involved with operating and maintaining your airplane understand how it is gathered, transmitted and used.