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Speeches

Forum Emerging Flight Data and Locator Technology, Acting Chairman's Opening Statement, Washington, DC
Christopher A. Hart
Washington, DC
10/7/2014

Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board and to this forum on Emerging Flight Data and Locator Technology. My thanks to all of the panelists who will provide their perspectives and expertise.
I am Christopher Hart, and it is my privilege to serve as Acting Chairman of the NTSB. Today, I will be joined on the dais by Dr. Joseph Kolly, Director of our Office of Research and Engineering, and Mr. John DeLisi, Director of our Office of Aviation Safety.
The NTSB depends on flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders to help determine the causes of accidents and incidents in aviation. Because of their value in investigations, rapid location and recovery of these recorders, and access to the vital information they contain, are among our highest priorities.
Flight data recorders were first created specifically to capture information after a crash, and were designed to survive the catastrophic conditions that a crash can entail. Their introduction has been a boon to aviation safety. In many cases recorders are the most significant source of useful information about an accident, and in some cases, they are the only source.
As accident investigations exposed additional data needs, and as the technology to meet these needs became more integral to aircraft, flight recorders evolved. Now recorders capture many more parameters. Flight data are accessible in ways other than storage on mandatory flight recorders, and are increasingly being used by operators and manufacturers, as well as accident investigators, for prevention, not just investigation.
Time and again, recorders have ensured the survival of accident data under the harshest conditions. Time and again, they have yielded useful data despite the traumatic forces of accident sequences, and despite subsequent immersion in water or being engulfed in fire. The required underwater locator beacons designed to guide searchers to submerged recorders are evolving as well.
The data that recorders preserve have shed light on accident circumstances, helping to guide safety improvements. Through these improvements, they have undoubtedly saved many lives – maybe yours or mine.
The data yielded by traditional recorders have been the sign-posts along the path in our decades-long aviation safety journey. They have guided us to our present era of unprecedented aviation safety.
But at the same time, progress has surged forward elsewhere in aviation. Increased engine and system reliability allow today’s aircraft to fly farther from a suitable landing point than ever before. Satellite tracking makes it possible to monitor aircraft even in the most remote parts of the globe.
These advances have changed the way we fly. We routinely fly over the poles to get to a destination more efficiently. Our flights span wide ocean expanses instead of hugging the coastlines.
When an accident does happen, it may be in one of these remote locations. It takes longer to respond, and it is more difficult to get the appropriate resources to the search area.
The NTSB called this forum to reexamine traditional requirements in light of today’s – and tomorrow’s – realities. One such reality has become glaringly apparent:
At present, for the data to be recovered, the recorders must be recovered. This means that searchers must locate the aircraft wreckage and retrieve the recorders.
In recent years, there have been a few exhaustive, expensive, and well publicized searches for missing aircraft and their recorders. Such events have raised serious concerns within the NTSB and in other safety organizations here and abroad.
These concerns are far from academic. Without the data, the lessons of the accident may remain forever unknown, because the circumstances of the accident may remain forever uncertain.
We have all seen the human face of such uncertainty, the uniquely agonizing human toll for those whose loved ones were aboard such flights. To those who have endured such uncertainty, we offer our deepest sympathy.
It is our hope that the work we do here today can help to prevent such uncertainty, while providing investigators the data that they need.
A wider effect of such tragic events is the loss of confidence that they engender among the flying public.
In our age of seemingly unlimited information, we can sit at our computers and call up aerial or street-level views of our homes. Our cars know precisely where they are on a GPS grid. There are apps for our smartphones that can show us where our friends and family members are.
Against this backdrop of ubiquitous information flow, when a flight cannot be located, an incredulous public asks:
“How can they possibly lose a plane?”
But the application of new technology in aviation is itself a complex and consequential process. Introducing new technology on an aircraft that carries 300 people, or into a navigation system that has to track thousands of aircraft, requires forethought and caution.
The costs, downtime, maintenance, and training have to be accounted for in the aviation industry. Regulators must harmonize their efforts across the global aviation sphere.
Above all, it is of paramount importance to avoid unintended consequences that may compromise safety.
A quick fix based on a hasty conclusion could result in lesser safety benefits. Worse, such a “quick fix” could introduce hazards of its own.
In recent years, significant advances have been made that can aid in the location of aircraft wreckage and help collect, transfer and distribute recorded data.
These innovations can be packaged and integrated in many ways. But to have confidence in the benefits of any products or technologies, we need to fully understand how they work, what they offer, how the users feel and how current standards and regulations will impact their implementation.
Throughout this forum we will discuss the more efficient recovery of flight data. We will examine ways to more quickly locate and retrieve traditional recorders. We will explore recorders that deploy from the aircraft. We will learn about means of transmitting data wirelessly in the case of an abnormal event.
Some of these technologies are already being used by commercial or military operators. They make life easier: Operators can know whether a flight is on time, proactively detect problems, and have a replacement part waiting when an airplane arrives.
But to broadly implement such solutions, we have to ask the right questions:
How does each of these technologies work?
How might they be configured to work together, and to work with existing systems in aviation?
What are the regulatory implications of implementing these technologies?
Who owns the data, what are its proper uses, and what privacy issues arise?
We will hear from aircraft manufacturers, manufacturers of avionics systems, manufacturers offering new means of data retrieval, regulators, operators and pilots.
We welcome all of their points of view, because like an individual airplane, aviation is a system. The many solutions that we have been working toward must be successfully integrated into this system for the parts to work together as a whole.
To do less would be to jeopardize the progress we have made on the aviation safety journey, arrived at through decades of industry-wide collaboration, regulatory guidance, and painstaking investigative work.
There is a future in which we know the fate of every accident flight. Today, we hope to take one more step toward that future.
Now I will turn to Dr. Joseph Kolly, who, along with his staff and staff from the office of aviation safety, has done an outstanding job in organizing this forum. Dr. Kolly.