The Beginning of an Age of Aviation Safety
Sometimes some small event has consequences well beyond what those in attendance realize. A painter/inventor quoted a line from the Bible suggesting that he comprehended the moment in 1844. An Australian Doctor in 1953 connected technology with a significant aviation need. Not clear that he foresaw the benefits of his discovery.
In 1925 a birth occurred on Groote Eylandt, an obscure island off of Australia’s Northern coast. It is the homeland of the Anindilyakwa people. The baby boy, David Warren, was the first person of European heritage to be born there. When he was 9, he lost his dad in an airplane crash. Mr. Warren earned a Bachelor of Science degree with Honors from the University of Sydney, a PhD in fuels and energy from Imperial College London (as well as a Diploma of Imperial College), and a Diploma of Education from the University of Melbourne.
In 1953, Dr. Warren was assigned to investigate the crash of the Comet jet. While attempting to learn what caused the accident, the young scientist, purely by happenstance, attended a trade show, where he saw a small recorder which could capture voice. “If a businessman had been using one of these in the plane and we could find it in the wreckage and we played it back, we’d say, ‘We know what caused this,'” Warren later recalled. “Any sounds that were relevant to what was going on would be recorded and you could take them from the wreckage.”
The CVR was an addition to other recorders which saved data about other operating parameters of the aircraft, but their utility was low because once used, the tape had to be replaced—an expensive device. Warren recognized that magnetic recording media, could be easy erased and re-recorded, which made it useful for routine line service. The CVR not only allowed the investigators to listen to what the pilots said, but also permitted them to identify other noises which might give clues to the reasons for the accident.
ICAO president Dr. Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, on behalf of the global aviation safety organization, posthumously conferred the Edward Warner Award to Dr. Warren in Montreal. The official citation of the award said the development of the flight recorder had created a
“…legacy of safety for the travelling public…The international aviation community owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Dr. Warren for the vision and tenacity exemplified in his conceptual work and prototype development of what is known today as the aircraft ‘black box’ flight recorder…Dr. Warren’s innovative work continues to this day to influence ICAO’s initiatives in the field of aircraft accident and incident investigation.”
ICAO’s recognition might well have mentioned that the Warren invention was the precursor to the current emphasis on data, meta data, in a preventative approach to aviation safety.
The Aviation Safety Reporting System coincidentally celebrated its 40th anniversary. ASRS is one of 185 sources of information which the FAA, NASA and the aviation community use to develop trends showing risks and then to develop preventative solutions. NASA administers the collection of reports from pilots and other members of the aviation community. Its effectiveness, in part, derives from its confidentiality. Those who submit these reports are assured that their names will be de-identified.
Linda Connell, director of the NASA ASRS, headquartered at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, commented:
“Since the implementation of the Aviation Safety Reporting System, approximately 1.4 million reports have been submitted by pilots, dispatchers, mechanics, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, ground personnel, and others…Many of those reports have had a direct influence on making the nation’s airways safer, and we are extremely proud of these contributions to safety.”
FAA Associate Administrator for Flight Safety, Peggy Gilligan, who receives the NASA analyses, is quoted:
“Voluntary reporting programs have significantly contributed to the nation’s impressive commercial aviation safety record…In addition to reporting programs that are investigated and verified, ASRS gives aviation workers another way to report potential safety issues.”
Since its start in 1976 the ASRS staff has analyzed these descriptions of real life problems incurred and have authored more than 6,200 safety alerts. Typically, these assessments involve “air traffic departure procedures, aircraft equipment problems, airport signage and marking issues, confusion among similar-sounding navigation fixes, or positions, and aeronautical chart deficiencies.”
Problems identified by ASRS include:
- “sunlight reflecting off a large concentrated solar power plant in the southwestern United States, temporarily blinding pilots in the cockpit,
- identification of fire hazards associated with the packaging of lithium ion batteries for shipment in aircraft,
- health hazards associated with the use of certain de-icing fluids, and
- the susceptibility of certain pressure-sensitive aircraft systems to icing from super-cooled water droplets.”
More quantitative in their perspectives are FAA systems like:
Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) system
Samuel F.B. Morse, an accomplished painter and a pretty talented inventor, too, sent and then received a telegraph message drawn from the Bible (Numbers 23:23) — “What Hath God Wrought?”
In 1953 when Dr. Warren attended a trade show and saw an early recording device, little did he know that that accidental observation would be the beginning of an age of aviation safety which relies on the accumulation of little data bits on a tape to lower the risk in his industry. He, too, could have quoted from Numbers!