Mica, Ranking Member Duckworth, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for
inviting the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to testify before you
NTSB is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress with investigating
every civil aviation accident and significant incidents in the United States
and significant accidents and incidents in other modes of transportation –
railroad, highway, marine and pipeline. The NTSB determines the probable cause
of accidents and other transportation events and issues safety recommendations
aimed at preventing future accidents. In addition, the NTSB carries out special
studies concerning transportation safety and coordinates the resources of the
Federal Government and other organizations to provide assistance to victims and
their family members impacted by major transportation disasters.
I would like to summarize for the Subcommittee the paramount role played by
recorders in determining the cause of an aviation accident or incident; information the NTSB obtained in a forum we hosted in
October 2014 on Emerging Flight Data and Locator Technology; and the
series of recommendations we issued last month to the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) calling for improvements in
locating downed aircraft and ways to obtain critical flight data faster and
without the need for immediate underwater retrieval.
The Role of Flight Data Recorders and Cockpit Voice Recorders in
The NTSB depends on
flight data recorders (FDRs) and cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) 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 recorders were first created specifically to capture information about a
flight that would assist 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 of information. In addition, the required underwater locator beacons have
guided searchers to submerged recorders by their signal, or “ping,” when
submerged in water. Once activated by submersion in water, the device’s batteries
can power this signal continuously for at least 30 days. In some newer models,
the batteries can power the signal for at least 90 days.
Recorders have ensured the survival
of accident data under the harshest conditions. In many cases, they have
yielded useful data despite the traumatic forces of accident sequences and
despite subsequent immersion in water or being engulfed in fire. The data that
recorders preserve have shed light on accident circumstances, helping to guide
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, and these advances have changed the way
we fly. 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. Having a starting point to define the
search area is critical to success in locating the aircraft.
As we are well aware, in recent
years, there have been a few exhaustive, expensive, and well publicized
searches for missing aircraft and their recorders. The events involving Air France
Flight 447 in 2009 and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have raised serious
concerns within the NTSB and in other safety organizations here and abroad. After the crash of Air France Flight 447, it took almost
two years and $40 million to find the recorders. Investigators are still searching
for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. So far the search has involved 26 countries
using 84 vessels and numerous aircraft. As stated in the Australian Transport
Safety Bureau’s most recent Operational Update Report (February 18, 2015), more
than 24,000 square kilometers
of ocean floor have been searched without locating the aircraft’s CVR, FDR, or
The NTSB’s Longstanding Role in
Advocating for Improvements in Recorder Technology, Recorder Recovery, and
Locating Aircraft After an Accident
From the agency’s earliest days, the
NTSB has been vitally interested in the effectiveness of recorders. For
example, shortly after an accident involving a National Airlines aircraft in
New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 3, 1967, the NTSB issued a recommendation to
the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pointing to CVR inadequacies and called
for the FAA to review its installation approvals granted to aircraft operators.
After an engine fan assembly
disintegrated during the flight of another National Airlines passenger aircraft
near Albuquerque, New Mexico, on November 3, 1973, resulting in 1 fatality and
24 injuries, the NTSB’s investigation disclosed a malfunction in the FDR.
Testimony during the NTSB’s public investigative hearing and subsequent data
recovery efforts by NTSB staff disclosed that of the 13 aircraft in the
carrier’s fleet, 7 had been operating with undetected malfunctions which would
have precluded recovery of acceptable data. As a result of its investigation,
the NTSB issued 3 recommendations to
the FAA to take appropriate corrective actions to ensure the proper operation
and reliability of these recorder systems.
In 1975, the NTSB issued a special
study entitled “Flight Data Recorder Readout Experience in Aircraft Accident
Investigations 1960-1973” .
The report was based on a review of 509 accident and incident flight recorder
readouts over a 14-year period. The report mentions 4 cases where the FDR was
not recovered because the wreckage was in deep water and could not be located.
It also describes an earlier NTSB safety recommendation that led to the FAA amending Part 121 of the
Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) to require each recorder to be equipped with
an approved underwater locator beacon to assist in locating the recorder under
The special study also describes the
crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 841 in the Ionian Sea on September 8,
1974. The NTSB’s Aircraft Accident Report for
this accident recounts the following efforts to recover the flight recorder:
accordance with 14 CFR 121.343, an underwater locator beacon (Dukane Model
N15F210B) was mounted on the recorder. According to its manufacturer, this
locator (Pinger) had an operating depth of 20,000 feet, a detection range of
2,000 to 4,000 yards, and was capable of transmitting acoustic signals for 30
days after activation by water.
September 8, 1974, to September 20, 1974, air, surface, and subsurface units
from the U.S. Sixth Fleet attempted to locate the recorder by conducting visual,
radar, and acoustic searches; however, their efforts were unsuccessful. The
Safety Board then contracted the Supervisor of Salvage, Department of the Navy,
to search the area in which the Sixth Fleet believed the wreckage to be located.
On October 4, 1974, salvage experts using a dipping hydrophone system, detected
the pinger signal in an area with a depth of 10,380 feet.
the FDR nor the CVR was recovered.
Faced with the likely high costs of
recovering the aircraft wreckage and the recorders, the possibility that the pinger
separated from the flight recorder at impact or that the recorder with the
attached pinger were separated from the main wreckage, there were no further
is also interested in ways to recover critical flight data in a more timely
manner without immediate underwater retrieval of flight recorders. Locating and
recovering flight recorders in over-water accidents has been more problematic
than those occurring on land. Once recovered, flight recorders have been highly
reliable, and data have been successfully downloaded. However, there have been
rare instances in which recorders have not been recovered or data were lost due
to damage from exposure to severe fire or underwater conditions. Because of
this, in March 1999, the NTSB issued a recommendation asking
the FAA to require the installation of dual combination flight recorders that
include both CVR and FDR functionalities on board newly built aircraft. In
issuing the recommendation the NTSB pointed out that since 1983, there had been 52 accidents and incidents in which information
from either a CVR or FDR or both were lost due to interruption of electrical
power following an engine or generator failure or crew action.
In addition to recommending improvements in recorders required to be installed
in aircraft subject to Part 119, 121, 125, or 135 of the FAR, the NTSB has also
issued recommendations calling for replacement of the emergency locator
transmissions (ELTs) in most general aviation airplanes subject to Part 91 of
the FAR. Although Congress, in 1970, enacted a statutory requirement mandating
the installation of ELTs in most of these aircraft, the NTSB has repeatedly
called for improvements and replacement of older model beacons. As a result of
the NTSB’s investigation of a 9-fatality accident involving a Department of
Interior operated Cessna 208B in Montrose, CO on October 8, 1997, the agency
recommended that the FAA require the installation of newer, digital 406
megahertz ELTs. A subsequent recommendation in 2007 recommended that the FAA
seek authority from Congress to require upgrades of Technical Standard Order
(TSO) C 126 [406 megahertz] ELTs prior to the discontinuance of satellite
processing of 121.5 megahertz ELT signals. To
date, however, the FAA has responded that it cannot require the installation of
406 megahertz ELTs and will not seek statutory authority to do so. Without
satellite detection capabilities, aircraft broadcasting at 121.5 MHz can only
be discovered if overflying aircraft monitor 121.5 MHz and report audible
signals to air traffic control and, even then, no exact accident location can
The limitations of this archaic method of detection played a role in an
October 26, 2011 accident in Lexington, Oregon involving a Cessna 182R. The
NTSB’s investigation found that both occupants initially survived the crash. While
one injured occupant was able to exit the airplane, it took him 4 hours to find
a location where he could call for help. When first responders arrived the
pilot had died, even though the airplane’s 121.5 MHz ELT was still operating. The
NTSB concluded that a notification from a functional
406 MHz ELT would have been received within minutes of the crash, significantly
reducing the emergency response time and greatly increasing the chances of the
The NTSB has also issued safety
recommendations on cockpit image recording systems and protection against
deactivation of recording systems. In April 2000, in response to investigations
of several accidents involving a lack of information regarding crewmember
actions and the flight deck environment, including ValuJet Flight 592, SilkAir
Flight 185, Swissair Flight 111, and EgyptAir Flight 990, the NTSB issued two recommendations
to the FAA. One recommendation
asked the FAA to require that that in-service aircraft operated under 14 CFR
Part 121, 125, or 135 be equipped with a crash-protected cockpit image
recording system. The second recommendation
asked for similar action for newly manufactured aircraft that would be operated
under 14 CFR Part 121, 125, or 135. Both recommendations also asked that the
FAA require placing recorder system circuit breakers in locations the flight
crew could not access.
The NTSB now believes it is
appropriate to clarify these recommendations by separating the issue of
recorder system circuit breaker accessibility from the issue of cockpit image
recording systems and to update the recommendations by incorporating government
and industry developments in cockpit image technology.
In the SilkAir and EgyptAir crashes,
the CVR and FDR recordings provided limited information about crew actions and
the status of the cockpit environment. Further, in the Air France Flight 447
crash and the September 3, 2010, crash of a Boeing 747-44AF, operated by United
Parcel Service while attempting to return to Dubai International Airport
following an in-flight cargo fire, the accident aircraft were equipped with
FDRs that greatly exceeded the minimum parameter requirements. However, in
these accidents, critical information related to the cockpit environment
conditions (for example, crew actions and visibility), instrument indications
available to crewmembers, and the degradation of aircraft systems was not
available to investigators. Modern cockpit imaging systems can provide the
information needed to help determine the cause of these types of accidents.
Recent NTSB Activities and Actions
the NTSB’s nearly 50 years of aviation accident investigations and role in
securing improvements in recorder capabilities and locator technologies, the
agency clearly recognizes that sophisticated aircraft accident
investigation and analysis cannot be accomplished without recorded flight data.
In order for our important work to continue and make a difference in saving
lives, we must ensure that the technologies are available to locate aircraft
wreckage and recorders after an accident and that critical flight data can be
NTSB Public Forum on Emerging
Flight Data and Locator Technology
The NTSB has long
been concerned about rapid recovery of recorded information to guide
investigations, help determine accident causes, and develop recommendations to
prevent recurrences. To focus attention on this issue, the NTSB convened its Emerging
Flight Data and Locator Technology Forum on October 7, 2014, in Washington,
D.C. Forum discussions among government, industry, and investigative experts
helped identify the following safety issues:
The need for improved technologies to locate aircraft wreckage and
flight recorders following an accident in a remote location or over water.
The need for timely recovery of critical flight data following an
accident in a remote location or over water
The Forum included 4 panels:
Panel 1, consisting of officials from the FAA, the European
Aviation Safety Agency, and the International Civil Aviation Organization
(ICAO), discussed the organizational framework and structure of the US and
international regulatory and standards bodies
Panel 2, consisting of representatives from Boeing Commercial
Airplane Company, Airbus, Honeywell, and Inmarsat, addressed the airframe manufacturer,
supplier, and infrastructure provider’s perspectives on technology solutions to
provide more timely location and recovery of flight data following an accident
Panel 3, consisting of representatives from France’s Bureau d’
Enquêtes et d’Analyses, the Naval Sea Systems Command, L3 Communications
Company, DRS Technologies Canada Ltd., and FLYHT Aerospace Solutions Ltd.,
summarized possible technical solutions that can assist in wreckage location,
recorder retrieval, and flight data recovery. The panel also addressed the
technical details of two specific technologies -- a deployable flight recorder
system and a method for wireless transmission of flight data.
Panel 4, consisting of representatives from the Air Line Pilots Association,
American Airlines, and the FAA, addressed obstacles that need to be overcome to
implement new and emerging technologies that would allow for a more efficient
recovery of flight data.
Other noteworthy information provided at the forum includes the following:
Deployable recorder technologies: These technologies can be used to
recover flight data without the delay of a long and expensive underwater
recovery. Deployable recorders have been used in military and over water
helicopter applications since the 1960s and are currently available from
several manufacturers. They combine traditional FDR and CVR functions into one
unit and are capable of providing a comparable amount of flight data. They are
designed to separate from the aircraft upon fuselage structural deformation or
when submersed in water. If in water, they float indefinitely on the surface.
These units are also equipped with ELTs that operate on the 121.5 megahertz and
406 megahertz frequencies for location and recovery. Standards already exist
for automatically deploying flight recorders.
Triggered flight data transmission:
A manufacturer of flight data transmission technology testified that
triggered flight data transmission was not only feasible, but also already in
service on some aircraft. Additionally, at this time, manufacturers and
operators are equipping their aircraft with commercial satellite communications
systems that can support broadband video, voice, and data transmissions.
Commercial satellite systems on the market today are primarily used for
passenger and crew connectivity and can
support speeds of 200-400 kilobits per second. Higher speed capability is forthcoming.
Such bandwidth would enable real-time parametric flight data transmission to
begin after a triggering event as well as transmission of a limited amount of
stored flight data recorded before the triggering event.
Recommendations Addressing Better Ways to Find Aircraft Accident Sites and Retrieve Critical Flight Data
22, 2015, the NTSB issued a series of safety
recommendations to the FAA
calling for improvements in locating downed aircraft and ways to obtain
critical flight data faster and without the need for immediate underwater
retrieval. The NTSB also re-emphasized the need for cockpit image recorders on
issuing its recommendations, the NTSB recognized there are significant ongoing
international industry and regulatory efforts to develop and adopt standards
for enhanced aircraft position reporting and supplemental methods for
recovering flight data. Achieving these goals on a global basis will demand a
harmonized approach that addresses the needs of many stakeholders and ensures
that domestic and foreign parties operate under equivalent standards. We also
strongly support the need for performance-based standards for emerging technologies
and data recovery. We applaud Ambassador Lawson and ICAO for their continued
important work in addressing these issues.
The NTSB recommendations urge the FAA to:
that all aircraft used in extended overwater operations (i.e., operations that
occur over water at a horizontal distance of more than 50
nm from the nearest shoreline) and operating under Part 121 or Part 135
of the FAR that are required to have a CVR and an FDR, be equipped with
tamper-resistant method to broadcast to a ground station sufficient information
to establish the location where an aircraft terminates flight as the result of
an accident within 6 nautical miles of the point of impact, and
Ø an airframe low
frequency underwater locating device that will function for at least 90 days
and that can be detected by equipment available on military, search and rescue,
and salvage assets commonly used to search for and recover wreckage.
that all newly manufactured aircraft used in extended overwater operations and
operating under Part 121 or Part 135 of the FAR that are required to have a CVR
and an FDR, be equipped with a means to recover, at a minimum, mandatory flight
data parameters; the means of recovery should not require underwater retrieval.
Data should be captured from a triggering event until the end of the flight and
for as long a time period before the triggering event as possible.
with other international regulatory authorities and ICAO to harmonize the
implementation of the above-identified requirements recommended by the NTSB for
locating where an aircraft terminates flight as the result of an accident and
recovery of mandatory flight data parameters.
ways to incorporate adequate protections against disabling flight recorder
systems on all existing transport category aircraft.
that all newly manufactured transport category aircraft incorporate adequate
protections against disabling flight recorder systems.
commend the Subcommittee for holding this hearing on these critical aviation
safety issues—issues that are receiving the highest level of attention
internationally and within the United States. With the hard work underway by
international organizations, foreign governments, the U.S. Government, and the
aviation community, clear, steady progress is occurring to implement
improvements to our already remarkably safe aviation system.
you for inviting me to testify today. I am happy to answer your questions.
A-73-116, A-73-117, and A-73 -118
No. NTSB-AAR-75-7, March 26, 1975
In 2006, the NTSB reiterated SR A-00-30 as a result of its investigation of a 2004
accident involving Corporate Airlines Flight5966, a BAE-J3201 aircraft, in