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FAA to improve aircraft black boxes

  • Story Highlights
  • Cockpit voice recorders will soon be required to capture last two hours of audio
  • Data can no longer be recorded on easily damaged magetic tape
  • Flight data recorders must now record more measurements more often
  • FAA will not require video recorders in the cockpit, as recommended by the NTSB
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From Mike M. Ahlers
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday it is mandating that cockpit voice recorders record for longer periods of time and continue recording after a loss of power.

Magnetic tape, which is vulnerable to damage, will be replaced with new technology in cockpit voice recorders.

Voice recorders will be required to capture the last two hours of cockpit audio instead of the current 15 to 30 minutes, and to continue recording for nine to 11 minutes once the main power is disrupted.

Voice recorders also must use solid-state technology instead of easily damaged magnetic tape.

Digital flight data recorders, which record speed, altitude and other critical information, must now also record more data more frequently.

The devices, commonly called "black boxes," are orange to make them easier to find at crash sites.

The FAA rule comes nine years after the National Transportation Safety Board called on the agency to improve the recorders and does not go as far as the board recommended. The FAA said the costs of some of the recommendations would be too great to justify any potential benefit.

Notably, the FAA did not pursue the National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to require video recording of cockpit activities. Investigators say video could have been helpful in cases such as the October 1999 crash of Egypt Air Flight 990, in which it was determined the co-pilot intentionally flew the plane into the sea. Pilot groups have opposed the use of cockpit cameras.

Also, the FAA is not requiring aircraft to have two cockpit voice recorders/digital flight data recorders, one close to the cockpit and the other as far aft as possible, increasing the likelihood that at least one system would survive a crash. The FAA opposed dual systems because of "the substantial costs involved."

The new standards for the recorders will apply to all aircraft manufactured after March 7, 2010. Many builders, however, are already installing the newer equipment.

Existing commercial airplanes -- but not helicopters -- must be retrofitted with some of the equipment by March 7, 2012.

The FAA said the longer audio recordings may be especially beneficial, noting that in several past accidents, shorter recordings did not capture the full conversations about problems.

"The adverse effect on safety of these abbreviated recordings cannot be ignored," the FAA said in a news release.

Mandated independent power sources enable cockpit voice recorders to collect data even after a plane's power is disrupted. Existing planes are not required to be retrofitted.

"We found that the cost ... was considerable and the burden on [airlines] would be substantial," said the FAA release.

In addition to new voice recorder requirements, all new aircraft will be required to record 25 hours of digital flight data. Some helicopter manufacturers said 25 hours would be excessive given the relatively short duration of their flights.

However, the FAA said increased recording time is "a matter of memory and is not a technical challenge," and there would be benefits to standardizing equipment and rules.

Robert Sturgell, the FAA's acting administrator, said the improvements will enable investigators to retrieve more data from accidents and incidents.

"These enhancements will give us more information about the causes of accidents and find ways to avoid them in the future," he said.

The new rule affects airplanes and helicopters with 10 or more seats.

The FAA proposed the changes in 2005, and they have undergone an extensive comment and review period. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Federal Aviation AdministrationU.S. National Transportation Safety Board

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