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Key Findings

More than 2,300 people have been killed from ice buildup on aircraft, problems on runways, faulty aircraft maintenance and repairs and overtired pilots, despite dozens of NTSB recommendations to address those problems.
Related stories:
Resistance in the Cockpit
Repairing Planes on the Cheap
Pilots – the Next Generation
No Way To Know
Legislating Safety
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Cockpit video recorders are used in Europe, mostly in a handful of Sikorsky helicopters in England. None of those helicopters has crashed, so it’s difficult to show how images help better solve an air crash investigation, Cash said.

The NTSB wants recorders to hold two hours of video. The video probably would look jerkier than video captured on an average video camera because the cockpit camera would catch fewer frames per second. But the limited frames per second would allow the recorders to store more images without bogging down computer systems.

Some U.S. companies already are making image recorders, and some aircraft manufacturers are voluntarily installing them in new aircraft, Cash said. In California, the Physical Optics Corp. is making one black box to collect audio recordings, flight data and two video views of the cockpit that show the pilots’ arms and controls but not the pilots’ faces. And a patent has been granted for a video camera with a “fisheye” lens that can capture a fuller, rounder view of the cockpit from behind the pilots’ seats.

In small jets and helicopters without any recorders the video recorder would provide the “most bang for our buck,” Cash said.

The estimated cost for an image recorder is less than $8,000 on smaller aircraft, according to the NTSB. Higher-end video recorders for larger commercial aircraft could cost roughly $40,000, said Rick Shie, senior vice president of Physical Optics.

Despite the decade-long struggle to turn its recommendation into a rule, the NTSB continues to work to “make the FAA see our way,” Cash said. “It probably is going to take some type of large event to get it over the hump.”

The Montrose Crash

The remains of the Cessna that crashed in Montrose are now a learning tool for investigators training at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. There, the plane has been laid out in roughly the same way it was discovered in the snowy woods of Colorado.

Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science at the flight school, said there are clues hidden within the 9,000-pound, crumpled plane about what happened during the accident.

The pilot hated flying in bad weather and was bringing the plane up to an abnormally high altitude of 15,400 feet, perhaps to avoid a storm, investigators said. He was still pulling on the controls at the time of impact, judging by the way the throttle was bent and the steering column was busted.

“He was fighting this thing all the way to the ground,” Waldock said, surveying the remains.

But the broken pieces can never tell investigators what the pilot was doing in the critical moments that caused the stall, sending the plane into a spin from which it would never recover.

“In this case, (a recorder) certainly would have helped us fill in some of the blanks,” Waldock said. “An image recorder would have shown us the instrument panel. It would have shown us where his hands were, the control manipulations – whatever he did to make the airplane depart controlled flight.”

News21 reporter Charlie Litton contributed to this report.

Sept. 26, 2010

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2 Responses to “Pilots Fight Video Recorders in Cockpits”

  1. Glen Gates says:

    I was impressed by the reporter’s level of reporting and accuracy. One of my pet peeves is how commercial news media handle aviation news. Because crashes are newsworthy and papers/TV stations need headlines to sell news, what often happens is a reporter will seek the story and print “facts” without checking the details. Eye witness reports, breathlessly recorded and edited for the news audience are usually inaccurate. The NTSB rarely makes any conclusions based on eye witness reports published or broadcast, especially if the witness is not technically trained in aviation. Non-pilots will say what they believe they saw which editors rush to publish or broadcast as “breaking news” without making sure the details are reported accurately. The rush to be first often ends up being the first to make journalistic mistakes. Ken Kaye @ Sun Sentinal in Ft. Lauderdale is an example of good aviation reporting. he and his staff make sure the stories published are accurate. He happens to have had a career as commercial pilot flying cancelled checks in Colorado so he knows what he is writing about.

  2. flynblu says:

    Imagine going to work in your office cubicle under 24-hour video surveillance watching your every action. Imagine driving your car down the road with every moment under constant video scrutiny. As a retired military pilot and current Airline Transport rated pilot with over 35 years of experience and thousands of flight hours, I strongly doubt that the possible, unproven, contribution to flight safety would justify such an egregious invasion of privacy. Would cockpit video improve safety, possibly, but only when combined with a Flight Data Recorder (FDR). What if some of the cockpit instrumentation had failed and was providing erroneous information to the pilots (I have had that happen several times); that could be difficult to determine solely from a video recording showing all is well. And you would need multiple cameras on the aircraft showing what the pilot sees outside as well as inside. Also a 360-degree view around the aircraft in case of mid-air collisions or structural problems. Video without the context of the current flight conditions and parameters would be very difficult to extract meaningful information from. And the distraction provided by the presence of the video recorder, especially in the early stages of adoption, would be a much greater detriment to safety.

    What is needed far all new aircraft is an inexpensive FDR system designed into the aircraft from the start and provided as standard equipment at the factory. And a system of small remote sensors wirelessly providing data inputs to a FDR on older aircraft does not seem to be beyond the capabilities of present technology. This would provide far more useful information to an investigation team. Sensed flight control inputs could tell the investigators what the pilots were doing far better than out-of-context video ever would.

    Our society seems to be fixated on protecting all citizens from the dangers and woes of the world. Reclining suspended in an earthquake-proof tank of nutrient goo while being fed intravenously and provided only happy thoughts fed electronically to our brains may be the safest way to go, but would provide only existence, not life. Trading our privacy and freedom for illusory increases in safety just because it sounds good in the face of sensationalized media stories are more big steps down that Dark Path. Be careful, Big Brother could be watching.

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The fuselage section is part of what’s left of Egyptair Flight 990, which plummeted into the Atlantic shortly after takeoff from New York City in 1999, killing 217. Investigators said they believe the pilot deliberately crashed the plane, but without a video recorder in the cockpit they could not be certain. (NTSB Photo)

A video recorder provides a view of a pilot’s actions in the cockpit of a Sikorsky helicopter. The video feeds into the aircraft’s crash-protected black box. (Courtesy of Physical Optics Corporation)