Why are black boxes not actually black?


The early model flight data recorders were literally painted black, ergo the term: “Black Boxes.” It wasn’t until 1965 that the boxes were required to be painted bright orange or yellow to facilitate finding them at a crash site, but the inaccurate nickname remains. At that time they were moved to the rear of the plane to improve the probability of successful data retrieval after a crash. Black Boxes consist of Flight Data Recorders and Voice Data Recorders which often reveal the conversations taking place in the cockpit and provide clues to what caused the crash. The boxes are designed to withstand fire, impact, explosion and sinking.

The “Black Box” was first invented by a young Australian scientist named Dr. David Warren. While Warren was working at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Melbourne in the mid-1950s he was involved in the accident investigation surrounding the mysterious crash of the world’s first jet-powered commercial aircraft, the Comet. Realizing that it would have been useful for investigators if there had been a recording of what happened on the plane just before the crash, he got to work on a basic flight data recorder. The first demonstration unit was produced in 1957, but it was not until 1960, after an unexplained plane crash in Queensland, that Australia became the first country in the world to make the Black Box mandatory for all commercial aircraft.

Every commercial airplane or corporate jet is now required to be equipped with a cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder or “Black Box.” While they do nothing when the plane is in the air, they are important in case of a disaster as they help investigators determine what happened. The recorders will have the last two hours of cockpit voice data and two hours of instrumentation data. This includes altitude and all engine statistics. In addition each “Black Box” is equipped with a Underwater Locator Beacon (ULB) to help locate the plane and the recorders in case of a crash at sea. The ULB supplied by RJE International (Aviation Location Beacons) is activated as soon as it comes into contact with water and can transmit from a depth of 14,000 feet. RJE International is one of the leading suppliers of ULB’s which are also mounted on helicopters. The ULB on the Super Puma that crashed off the coast of Shetland this summer, continued to send a signal for several weeks until they were able to retrieve it, deep in the turbulent seabed.

Today the “Black Box,” which is actually orange, is still vitally important in helping to piece together the causes and insures preventions of future plane crashes. This was demonstrated in the 2008 crash in Mexico that killed 14, including the Interior Minister. Flight data proved the cause was pilot error and inexperience. Such information typically mandates changes in training, licensing and therefore improves our airways. Large ships are required to install Voyage Data Recorders in order to collect data from various sensors on board the ship. The Costa Concordia, which sunk off the coast of the Italian island Giglio, and killed 32 people, was equipped with such a recorder. The conversations recorded proved to be the downfall of Captain Franseco.

Similar technology is used in automobiles to determine causes of accidents. Event data recorders, also known as black boxes, assess performance and identify safety problems. 96% of all new vehicles sold in the US have these black boxes today.