Air France #AF447: BEA initial report; real-time transmission of flight data

A lot has been interpreted over France’s Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA) initial findings in to the crash of Air France AF-447 from Rio to Paris.

I do not want to add to the interpretation. Two good starting points for Bangalore Aviation readers.

  1. The official initial report of the BEA which can be downloaded in PDF format here.
  2. Simon Hradeck’s analysis at Aviation Herald, which in my humble opinion is one of most comprehensive.

A lot has been made of the 25 ACARS messages that were received from the Airbus A330 airplane F-GZCP, since it is the only indication available of what MAY have happened. The official report goes in-depth in to most of these messages, what were the indications in the cockpit, and what is the meaning.

The on-going search for the two “black boxes” — the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR)will be suspended on July 10th.

The demand for answers, the lack of locating the black boxes and the improvements in satellite and wireless communications technology have prompted calls for exploration of real time downloading of flight data and cockpit voice recordings to ground stations.

Airbus has launched a study for reinforcing flight data recovery, including, but not limited to, extended data transmission for commercial airliners, so that in the event of accidents, critical flight information can still be recovered and released to the investigating authorities.

Tom Enders, President and CEO of Airbus commented:

“Gathering information from accidents is vitally important to further improve the safety of flying. Various technical means for reinforcing flight data recovery and data transmission to ground centres are principally available. We will now study different options for viable commercial solutions, including those where our experience with real-time data transmission from our own test aircraft could support the further development of such solutions.”

The study will be conducted by Patrick Gavin, Head of Airbus Engineering, and Charles Champion, Head of Customer Services, and will need to address technological issues as well as data protection and privacy concerns. Airbus will include industrial partners, research institutions, and international airworthiness and investigation authorities in this study.

Historically, the few air tragedies that have occurred, have led to large leaps in safety. While the study launched by Airbus may result in such a leap, we should caution ourselves against expecting too much. Existing air-to-ground links do not offer the bandwidth that would be needed for full real-time transmission of all the data stored in the DFDR and CVR. We also have to keep in mind the cost aspects of implementing such a system considering the fact that air travel is still the safest mode of transport and that in the very few cases of accidents, almost all times the DFDR and CVR are recovered.

It is ultimately a balance between the costs of implementing an upgrade versus the liability costs of an accident, and as much as I am hating writing this, history has repeatedly shown us that the bean counters always run the show; be it airlines or aerospace manufacturers.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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