Black boxes, black holes?

By WND Staff

What exactly was going on in the cockpit the final minutes and seconds of TWA 800, American 587, United 93 or Egypt 990? Given the terrorist shadows and direct connections to these flights, one would think the FAA was doing everything in its power to make sure we know for certain if they were accidents or attacks. You’d think that at the very least they would want to know.

This will come as no surprise to some and a shock to many. When a jet airliner loses primary electrical power, the black boxes stop recording. Flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders are the primary tools used by air-disaster investigators to determine what exactly occurred in the critical moments or even many minutes before a crash. However, once a jetliner loses electrical power both “black boxes” stop recording, leaving transportation safety and crime scene investigators and the public in the dark, should a flight go down. The boxes have no back up batteries.

While the FAA has mandated upgrades to have these recorders monitor and record between dozens and as many as 700 parameters of the aircraft operations, ranging from what is said in the cockpit to what all moving parts are doing, to altitude, to airspeed, etc., how the black boxes are powered and data being fed to them has seemingly been ignored by the FAA. Not that they don’t know this; they are well aware of the problem. In March of 1999 after Swiss Air 111 crashed, the NTSB issued recommendations A-99-16 through 18 to the FAA which address this issue. However as late as July 2001, after Egypt Air 990, the FAA had done nothing, causing the NTSB to urge the FAA to “act expeditiously” and considered and documented the FAA response and inaction as “unacceptable.” The NTBS has put the matter on its “most wanted list.”

If the engines fail and power from them stops, or if electrical current is severed and never makes it to the “black boxes,” they simply stop recording. Remember, there is no back up emergency battery power supplied to the boxes, in spite of the fact that as many as 150 back up batteries are on board an airliner – which could mean that while emergency lighting comes on in the passenger cabin, the black boxes have stopped working. A 30-year veteran airline pilot and certified flight safety expert said, “They build the boxes to withstand smacking into the ground at mach speed, but not to keep recording during electrical power loss.”

Swiss Air 111, which plunged into the Atlantic in 1998 due to an electrical fire and power failure (we think), had the final six tragic minutes missing from the black boxes. Numerous cases have been cited by the NTSB in their recommendations to the FAA including TWA 800.

Their point is clear when investigating Egypt Air 990, the flight deliberately crashed by the co-pilot off of Nantucket. The NTSB report makes these shortcomings, in the most important system of accident investigation, frighteningly obvious. While chilling detailed conversations between the pilot and co-pilot, the co-pilot’s Islamic praying, everything the jet did, every system command, every slight movement the plane made were all recorded and part of the report, the actual final dive and final minutes of the suicide flight into the ocean were not. The co-pilot shut down fuel to the engines at about 27,000 feet, once the electricity being generated by the engines stopped, the two recorders stopped working.

What happened in the final dive of Egypt flight 990, even how long it took was not recorded. The NTSB final report states, “The FDR and CVR [the black boxes] stopped recording at 0150:36:64 and 0150:38:47 respectively … the last responder return … was received by Nantucket radar at 0150:34. …” The Boeing 767 was still at or above about 25,000 feet at that time. Even if deliberately sent into a nose dive, as is believed to be the case here, the jet would only be able to descend at between 10,000 and 15,000 feet per minute. At least the final two minutes, maybe more, were never monitored or recorded and as such never analyzed by NTSB investigators. Critical data telling the final story of Egypt Air Flight 990 is lost forever. What happened to that flight? What happens when a 767 is sent into such a dramatic descent? What happens to its flight surfaces, structural integrity, etc.?

“Information about the remainder flight 990 [after it climbed back to 25,000 feet an unknown number of minutes before impact] came from the airplane’s two debris fields … before it started a second descent, which continued until the airplane impacted the ocean.” That from the NTSB. That’s all from the NTSB on the final minutes.

While many blame government cover ups for missing final moments or gaps from TWA 800 or United 93 or even American Flight 587 and other downed airliners’ black boxes, it may not be a case of government cover at all – or it may very well be. The gaps and missing moments could be power failures or even short intermittent power interruptions. If a plane is hit by a missile or explodes due to a bomb blast, it would seem plausible that power could be interrupted permanently or intermittently causing the boxes to stop recording and keeping secret forever what was going on in the aircraft as it came down. Under those circumstances as pilots are trying frantically to keep the plane in the air, they might be too busy to start back-up generators, their APUs (Auxiliary Power Units), and automatic back-up power systems would likely be damaged and not functioning in such a scenario.

At a time when we are at war against and expecting terrorism again, knowing and having proof of exactly what happened for the entire duration of a doomed flight, seems to be at very least a matter of national security.

Was TWA 800 shot down? Was American 587 (Rockaway) or United 93 (Pennsylvania) in fact brought down by a terrorist’s bomb? As long as the black boxes themselves can’t answer those questions, without question, we have to rely on the FAA and NTSB to tell us, what they want to tell us, about what they say, they think happened.

Does the FAA not fix this problem to allow the element of plausible deniability? If by design the boxes malfunction during a catastrophic event, who is to know why there are missing moments of audio and data?

The government would still control the data and what was released to the public even if the black boxes’ black holes are plugged up with batteries. The recordings are officially considered confidential and secret by the government. Congress even had its hand in making it so the feds control all the information.

I asked an aviation safety expert and critic of the FAA, “What if the boxes had their own back-up batteries, not draining power from anywhere else and transmitted data live over public airwaves on designated frequencies, in addition to recording everything, to ensure the public knew what happened?”

His response, “Why would the FAA want to do that?”

While cameras are being installed to monitor what we are doing in commercial airliners under the legal theory that what goes on is in public, it would seem then that the public has a right to know too.

Dave Forman is CEO of 4MNBROADCASTING, former executive editor of KFWB, adviser to the Wall Street Journal Network, NBC News and producer/host of hundreds of television programs. He was also a candidate for U.S. Congress from Orange County, Calif. He can be reached at (949) 366-6900 or or by e-mail.