When a state-of-the-art aircraft suddenly falls from the sky, the search for the black box is on. Such is the case in the tragic loss of Air France flight 447 over the South Atlantic on June 1, 2009. That black box was never recovered and is still somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
The few tantalizing clues that were transmitted from the aircraft were insufficient to do anything more than suggest a number of possibilities, but nothing definitive as to why an aircraft that appeared to be functioning normally, suddenly went down without any communication from the flight deck. The speed at which the tragedy unfolded would indicate that whatever happened, the flight deck had little or no warning of what was clearly a sudden, system-wide catastrophic failure.
The pursuit for answers included the dispatch of multiple assets, airborne and waterborne, to try and recover the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder from under miles of water in one of the deepest areas of the ocean. Millions were spent, and yet both boxes remain on the bottom of the sea, and along with them the answers to what really happened.
Six years ago, Western Avionics of Calgary, Canada, began development of an airborne wireless server platform that was originally intended to provide tracking information obtained from the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) buss for maintenance and Quality Assurance purposes. During its development, the CommuniCube (C3) capabilities reached a point where it is now functioning as a standalone FDR, able to “listen” discreetly and report any and all tolerance breaches, from hot starts to hard landings, and send that data back to the maintenance base via satellite uplink independent of the crew taking action to report said breach. The system is designed to activate automatically whenever a user-defined parameter is exceeded, or it can be manually initiated by the flight deck crew at any time.
The C3 has been installed successfully in everything from light twins to regional jets and is operating in a number of countries globally.
Improvements in data compression and satellite communication have reached the point wherein the C3 can communicate – on a virtually live basis – information coming from the FDR buss – and any additional information that the user deems necessary for their operation. For example, in EMS applications, patient medical information is being streamed ahead of the aircraft to the hospital. Fire applications have data being exchanged, air to air, to ground for fire-fighting coordination purposes, and commercial airlines are using the C3 for FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance) tracking.
“Although the C3 is not a certificated replacement for an FDR, which will always remain the final word regarding on-board flight data, the C3 can provide a mirror image of what the FDR was receiving on a nearly live basis to a user-defined terminal anywhere in the world. When the C3 senses any abnormal behavior, it immediately begins sending data, starting with the aircrafts current GPS location, without any pilot input,” said Greg Taylor with Western Avionics, product development.
But most importantly, the C3 will transmit everything it hears from the FDR buss, virtually live, until the situation is resolved, or until it is no longer able to do so. In the case of Air France flight 447, it is likely that this information would have gone a long way to solving one of the most puzzling aviation tragedies in years.