Taking off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
, on a late afternoon juant heading to Seattle, Washington
, with a short stop scheduled in San Francisco, California. Approximately one hour and 45 minutes into the flight, a problem was reported with Alaska Airlines Flight 261's stabilizer trim
4:09:55 Thompson: Center, Alaska two-sixty-one. We are, uh, in a dive here, and I've lost control, vertical pitch.
4:10:33 Thompson: Yea, we got it back under control here.
4:11:43 Tansky: Whatever we did is no good. Don't do that again...
4:11:44 Thompson: Yea, no, it went down. It went full nose down.
4:11:48 Tansky: Uh, it's a lot worse than it was?
4:11:50 Thompson: Yea. Yea. We're in much worse shape now.
4:14:12 Public address: Folks, we have had a flight-control problem up front here, we're working on it.
4:15:19 Flight 261 to LAX-CTR: L.A., Alaska two-sixty-one. We're with you, we're at twenty-two-five 22,500 feet. We have a jammed stabilizer and we're maintaining altitude with difficulty...
4:15:36 LAX-CTR: Alaska two-sixty-one, L.A center. Roger, um, you're cleared to Los Angeles Airport via present position...
4:17:09 Flight attendant: Okay, we had like a big bang back there.
4:17:15 Thompson: I think the stabilizer trim is broke.
4:19:36 Extremely loud noise
4:19:43 Tansky: Mayday
4:19:54 Thompson: Okay, we are inverted, and now we gotta get it.
4:20:04 Thompson: Push, push, push...push the blue side up. Push...
4:20:14 Tansky: I'm pushing.
4:20:16 Thompson: Okay, now let's kick rudder. Left rudder, left rudder.
4:20:18 Tansky: I can't reach it.
4:20:20 Thompson: Okay. Right rudder, right rudder.
4:20:25 Thompson: Are we flying? We're flying, we're flying. Tell 'em what we're doing.
4:20:33 Tansky: Oh, yeah. Let me get...
4:20:38 Thompson: Gotta get it over again. At least upside down we're flying.
4:20:54 Thompson: Speedbrakes.
4:20:55 Tansky: Got it.
4:20:56 Thompson: Ah, here we go.
4:20:57 End of recording
After a 10-minute battle to keep the plane airborne, it plunged into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California claiming the lives of both pilots, three cabin crewmembers, and eighty three passengers onboard. Unquestionably gripping are the absolute last moments of any aircraft disaster and the "black box" frequently offers the only account of a crash. Many times it provides the inescapably heart-breaking, second-by-second account of deep fear coupled with heroic professionalism. Few have ever been revealed in their entirety and each is absolutely riveting. This passage is part of the conversation between Captain Ted Thompson and First Officer William Tansky and the Los Angeles Route Traffic Control Center (LAX-CTR). Taken from the official National Transportation Safety Board
(NTSB) transcript of Flight 261, which crashed on January 31, 2000.
Cockpit Voice Recorder recordings contain vital clues to the cause of an accident. In the case of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, the conversations between the captain and his first officer pointed NTSB investigators to the plane's stabilizer. The Executive Summary from the NTSB concluded that “the probable cause of this accident was a loss of airplane pitch control resulting from the in-flight failure of the horizontal stabilizer trim system jackscrew assembly’s acme nut threads. The thread failure was caused by excessive wear resulting from Alaska Airlines’ insufficient lubrication of the jackscrew assembly.” Along with the failure to overhaul and oil this assembly the Board also noted another contributor to the accident was “the absence on the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 of a fail-safe mechanism to prevent the catastrophic effects of total acme nut thread loss.”
Black as a term describing a sense of malignant dark purposes emerged around 1583. One author from The Word of the Day discusses a quote from the 17th Century by R. Godfrey, "She had been in the black Box e're now." An indication that if some rescue had not taken place, "she" would have been dead by now, or in the "black Box," a coffin. In all likelihood the quote is referring to the inky blackness within the coffin since the outer parts of coffins of the era would have been the color of wood.
According documentations by L-3 Communications the Wright Brothers established the use of an instrument that recorded the rotations of propellers. The term itself originated with the British Royal Air Force and by the end of World War II the term black box as an aviation term emerged. Its first publication date is noted as 1945. Black box in the Royal Air Force started is a generic term for a piece of electronic equipment on an aircraft. The first ones were radar bomb "sights." Originally black boxes constructed during the Second World War were literally black boxes with the term applied to all of them regardless of the color. One pilot related that they can’t open them for repairs and sometimes black boxes break down leaving them unable to access vital fight data. This is important while they were air born and frequently they give them a good whack to get them going again. Then report the problem to maintenance when they landed and a new box is put in its place. Today many pieces of avionics equipment still come in black housings, but the term is equally applied to all of them regardless of color. Soon after, the name stretched out to indicate an assortment of electronic navigational devices and when civilian aircraft started using the flight recorders in 1958, the name stuck with the devices.
Another kind of black box that also arose from the vernacular shortly after World War II was a black box that even though its purpose was understood the inner mechanisms weren’t. One expert gives the following example: “If an engineer knows that the device will give output Y if he inputs X but doesn't understand why, then that is a black box.” Dating from around 1953 this description arose from aircrews were able to use the black boxes with proficiency, but didn’t really understand how because the components and processes were closely guarded military secrets.
Today the MerriamWebster Dictionay defines the phrase as:
- : a usually complicated electronic device that functions and is packaged as a unit and whose internal mechanism is usually hidden from or mysterious to the user; broadly : anything that has mysterious or unknown internal functions or mechanisms
- : a crashworthy device in aircraft for recording cockpit conversations and flight data
What began as jargon
has become that indicated navigational instruments which records information regarding the flight of an airplane is the standard use to mean a flight recorder
. Most of the black boxes in use today are actually orange on the outside to make them highly visible. On the inside, which is dark with potentially unsettling and sometimes impenetrable information, are composed of magnetic tape
, which was originally manufactured during 1960s. It works just like a tape recorder. An electromagnetic head collects the data on a piece of Mylar
tape. In the 1990’s they introduced solid-state memory board
s and airlines have begun to switch to the newer solid-state technology.
For the smoothest ride on an aircraft sit near the wings for the safest ride in the tail section. That’s where the black boxes are usually located because that’s the part that usually survives impact the best. Or more accurately the two black boxes. When an airplane crashes, the search begins for both the cockpit voice and flight data recorders.
Ever since the middle of the twentieth century, the recording medium of black boxes has made technological advances with the purpose of recording much more information about an aircraft's operation. Lately several US car manufacturers have installed their own version of "black box" technology. A lot like the flight recorder, the gadget tracks and records an automobile's journey. Manufactures say they can use them for finding wayward drivers while insurance companies suggest they be used for establishing what areas are driven through and the types of trips taken, so as to adjust their rates. More importantly is the follow up on car accidents in determining what happened.
The black box has become a compelling image in today's society enlarging upon the metaphor of some 'mysterious and dark interior'. Psychiatrists are said to find the human brain to be a "black box." In researching for contemporary uses of the term, one expert discovered the term used for:
- “A reference in a business report to "black box accounting," which brings to mind hidden numbers;
- A reference in a Florida newspaper saying that "customers are buying a black box when they purchase a new battery" (they cannot, by looking at its exterior, know whether its interior will work); and,
- In a Boston newspaper, the question, "Why should Microsoft open the black box of Windows 2000 and let rivals peer inside?"
A black box indeed. Billions of lines of code it’s shameful the number of bugs that are allowed to be sold. Over 40 % of the software on aircraft today are fail safe systems and the danger is so great that the NASA
space shuttles don’t use fly-by-wire
technology, they stick to hardware
Godwin, Ira S Lt Col (ret) USAF pilot
How Black Boxes Work:
Aircraft Accident Report
Loss of Control and Impact with Pacific Ocean Alaska Airlines Flight 261
McDonnell Douglas MD-83, N963AS:
Word of the Day: