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Pilots Fight Video Recorders in Cockpits

Posted By admin On August 31, 2010 @ 12:08 am In | Comments Disabled

Eight federal water-management officials climbed into a Cessna 208B in Montrose, Colo., just after dawn on Oct. 8, 1997.

They were headed to the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, but the chartered plane disappeared from radar shortly after takeoff. Two days later, searchers found the plane flattened among 60-foot-tall pine trees. Everyone on board died.

It was clear from the wreckage that the Cessna dropped from the sky at about a 65 degree angle, according to an investigation [1] by the National Transportation Safety Board. There was no fire. The plane had passed all inspections, and there was no evidence of a mechanical malfunction. There was some fog reported in the area, but no weather advisories had been issued. The pilot, in his early 60s, had no serious medical conditions or drugs in his system and didn’t issue a distress call.

NTSB investigators’ only explanation for the crash was that the pilot failed to maintain an adequate flight speed, but exactly why that happened remains a mystery.

Large commercial jetliners are required to have crash-resistant data and voice recorders – commonly called black boxes – that help accident investigators figure out the causes of crashes from data such as what controls a pilot used and the plane’s altitude and air speed. But small planes like the Cessna aren’t required to carry black boxes. And no aircraft are required to have cockpit video recorders.

In 2000, based on the Colorado crash and other accidents, the safety board issued a recommendation [2] that commercial and charter planes – big and small alike – be equipped with image recorders.

Ten years later, the Federal Aviation Administration still has not implemented the recommendation, which pilots unions have fiercely fought on the grounds that recorders are an invasion of privacy and could be used by airlines to police a pilot’s every move.

The NTSB continues to investigate many plane crashes without the aid of recording devices. Those include the recent accident in Alaska that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and four others. Without a recording device, NTSB investigators have to rely on an analysis of weather conditions, radio communication, statements of survivors and crash debris to determine why the plane flew into the side of a mountain.

Mysterious Plane Crashes

Since the NTSB began urging video recorders in cockpits, its investigators have dealt with at least 88 unsolved accidents or safety incidents involving aircraft that would have been equipped with video recorders under the proposal, according to an analysis of FAA data.

“The more information you have, the better your ability to determine what the cause was,” said Jim Cash, an NTSB recorder specialist. “You can’t fix something when you don’t know what’s broken.”

NTSB officials say cockpit video in jetliners could be an important supplement to the black box audio and data that record the critical moments leading up to a crash, providing visual documentation of what the pilot tried – or didn’t try – to do.

Crash investigators say they wish they had video inside the cockpit of EgyptAir Flight 990 [3], which plummeted into the Atlantic shortly after takeoff from New York City on Halloween 1999, killing all 217 people under mysterious circumstances. The Egyptian government disputed NTSB findings that the Egyptian pilot crashed the plane on purpose.

NTSB investigators say video would have helped them better understand other accidents as well, especially those on smaller planes, when smoke filled cockpits or the pilot overshot the runway.

Cockpit video would have helped investigators unravel the 2002 crash [4] that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone. The Minnesota Democrat was traveling for his re-election campaign with his wife and daughter when their plane went down. All eight people on board died. Without a black box, investigators could only conclude that the pilot failed to maintain a safe air speed.

“The potential is there to have a major accident with major loss of life and absolutely no recorders on board,” Cash said.

In 2002, the safety board’s recommendation made the NTSB’s “Most Wanted” list, which attempts to publicly nudge government agencies into compliance with the board’s most important recommendations. Since then, the NTSB updated its recommendations to include private jets and helicopters.

In a written statement, Laura Brown, FAA deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, said the FAA has significantly improved the quality and quantity of data that is collected from recorders already required on large commercial planes.

“The FAA’s position is that (these improvements) meet the intent of the NTSB’s safety recommendations for video recorders in the cockpit,” Brown said.

In addition, she said, three of the accidents that the NTSB uses to justify the need for video recorders, including EgyptAir Flight 990, occurred on foreign carriers and are not even subject to FAA oversight.

The FAA isn’t convinced that “there is a need to install cockpit image recording systems in commercial airplanes at this time,” Brown said in the statement.

Privacy Debate

The debate pitting pilots’ privacy versus passenger safety spans several decades. In the early 1960s, pilots unions agreed to the installation of audio recorders in airplane cockpits on the condition that recordings only would be used by crash investigators.

But union officials point to incidents in which black box audio was leaked to the news media. A TV newscast played audio from the cockpit of Delta Flight 1141 [5], which crashed in 1988 at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, killing 14 and injuring 26. The audio, which includes the sounds of metal crunching and the screams of people on board, still can be found on the Internet.

“We don’t like to be scrutinized,” said Ron Nielsen, a retired US Airways captain. “If you could absolutely guarantee that the contents of that video recorder would be limited to the people that had a need to see it, the resistance would drop away. But this is the year of YouTube.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union in the world with 53,000 members from 38 airlines in the U.S. and Canada, has spent $8.9 million lobbying the federal government since the NTSB made the video recorder recommendation, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ lobbying database [6]. The records don’t break out how much was spent on lobbying specifically against cockpit video recorders.

Repeated requests for an interview with union officials were denied. The union has previously told the NTSB [7] that money would be better spent on creating “more robust” data recorders, which would record more information about a plane’s condition before an accident.

Video recorders already are used to keep an eye on operators in other transportation industries. This year, two train operators were investigated on suspicion of trying to block views of video cameras in their control cabs.

Airplane pilots have been known to disable recording devices, Cash said. There is a circuit in many airplane cockpits that, if shut off, will cut the power to the audio recorder, and in some airplane crashes pilots shut off that circuit before impact, he added. The NTSB wants circuits re-wired in the cockpit so pilots cannot disable black boxes as easily.

Cockpit Video Technology

The FAA in 2006 outlined the minimum requirements [8] for cockpit video recorders in case manufacturers want to start installing them. But that doesn’t mean the agency is any closer to mandating them in cockpits.

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 [9] 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 [10] 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 [11] 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

Article printed from News21 – National: https://national.news21.com

URL to article: https://national.news21.com/2010-2/cockpit-video-recorders-resisted-ntsb

URLs in this post:

[1] investigation: https://www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/brief2.asp?ev_id=20001208X08986&ntsbno=DCA98MA002&akey=1

[2] recommendation: https://www.ntsb.gov/recs/mostwanted/aviation_recorders.htm

[3] EgyptAir Flight 990: https://www.ntsb.gov/Publictn/2002/aab0201.htm

[4] 2002 crash: https://www.ntsb.gov/Pressrel/2003/031118a.htm

[5] Delta Flight 1141: https://www.ntsb.gov/NTSB/brief.asp?ev_id=20001213X26528&key=1

[6] lobbying database: https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?lname=Air+Line+Pilots+Assn&year=2010

[7] previously told the NTSB: https://www.ntsb.gov/events/2004/av_img_rec/agenda.htm

[8] minimum requirements: https://rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library/rgTSO.nsf/0/DECE3E444929149B862571C3006F6922?OpenDocument

[9] one black box: https://www.poc.com/emerging_products/data_centric_rec/default.asp

[10] camera with a “fisheye” lens: https://jenoptik-inc.com/component/content/article/1-latest/20-patent-recieved-for-cockpit-monitoring-via-fisheye-lens.html

[11] Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University: https://case.erau.edu/

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