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Thursday, July 22, 2010

David Warren - inventor of black box is no more

Aeroplane continues to be a fascinating object. In our younger days, we used to look up at the sky wondering the metal bird in flight – blessed were those who had occasion to see a landing or take off of a flight. My classmates used to talk about a flight being shown ascending in a Kamal Rajini starrer of1970s. Some who can speak of complex parts like fuselage, cockpit, aileron, rudder, flaps, landing gear boasted themselves of knowledge in front of others.

The present generation which has travelled many a times in planes would not understand this. Even today, many fear travelling in a plane – this is a distinct phobia in itself as also is combination of one or more such as claustrophobia (fear of contained spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), agoraphobia (fear of open spaces). The news of Mangalore crash and other plane accidents do add to the fear of ordinary mortals.

In 1934, Warren’s father reportedly died in a plane crash. The boom in commercial air travel was associated with fear of crashes which shook the public’s confidence. Added woe was the fact of non availability of any witness or survivor to tell the tale of what went wrong, hence there could only be speculations and no lessons learnt from the disaster. A clever Australian inventor made an equipment which ended this misery. This was a recording medium initially made of steel wire which stored the crew voice data and instrument readings such as air speed, altitude, engine speed and engine temperature. For protection of the data and the equipment from the physical impact and heat, this was contained in a titanium box with heat insulation. The modern day equipments use magnetic tapes and memory chips and are much smaller in size than their earlier ones.

This is black box – most sought after one after a crash – a flight data recorder (FDR also ADR) – a device recording specific performance parameters. There is also the cockpit voice recorder which records the conversation in the cockpit, radio communications and ambient sounds. The black box helps in analyzing air safety issues, material degradation and engine performance.

David Warren is credited with the invention of black box. He died in Australia the age of 85. Dr Warren was the foremost research scientist at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation's Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne for more than 30 years and in 1953, the Department of Defence said that he headed the investigation of the world's airline disaster. The prototype was introduced in 1956 and in the following decade it was adopted in all Australian cockpits. Dr Warren and his research team were conferred the Lawrence Hargraves award in 2001 for that pioneering achievement and by the following year, he was designated as an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia. In 2008, Australian flag carrier Qantas named an Airbus A380 aircraft after Dr Warren for his pioneering work.

A much advanced version of this is now mandated on all flights standing as a testament to his pioneering work. Some road transport in advanced countries also use them. Interestingly, the black box is not so named because of its colour but because it was a magical idea . Contrary to the leading suggestion, the equipments, exterior is coated with heat-resistant bright red paint for high visibility in wreckage, and the unit is usually mounted in the aircraft's tail section, where it is more likely to survive a severe crash. Nowadays, they are of brilliant orange for better visibility.

Regards – Sampathkumar S

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