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David Warren's Black Box

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10 Facts About the Black Box Flight Data Recorder and Its Inventor

Dr. David Warren, inventor of the 'black box’ in-flight data recorders used on airplanes around the world, died this week at the age of 85.

Curiously, Warren’s own father died in an unsolved plane crash off the southern coast of Australia when Warren was 11. The young Warren was fascinated by the last gift his father had given him – a crystal radio set. Soon, he was building the sets and selling them to classmates.

He went on to work as the principal research scientist at Melbourne’s Aeronautical Research Laboratories, a branch of Australia’s defense department. In 1953, he helped investigate the crash of the world’s first commercial jetliner, The Comet, in which 53 people died. With insufficient data to draw upon, it was impossible to reach any conclusions as to what caused the crash.

At around the same time, Warren attended a trade show where he saw a demonstration of a small pocket recording device meant for businessmen.

Thus was the idea of an in-flight recorder born.

Dr. Warren was awarded one of Australia’s highest civilian honors, becoming an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2002. He is survived by his wife of 62 years, four children, eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Read and share tributes to David Warren in his online Guest Book.

Here are 10 things you might not know about the black boxes he helped pioneer.

1. They’re not really black. Most are painted bright red or orange so that they may be more easily spotted.

2. They’re not really called black boxes. While many in the media use this term, airline and safety personnel refer to them as in-flight data recorders. The device that specifically records cockpit conversations is known as a CVR (cockpit voice recorder).

3. No one wanted them at first. When Dr.Warren first approached Australian aviation safety officials, he was told the devise was of no use. Pilots also resisted the idea, uncomfortable with having a device record their conversations.

4. Australia was the first country to require their use. Despite its initial resistance to the black box, after the crash of a Fokker Friendship plane in Queensland in 1960, Australia made the device mandatory on all commercial flights.

5. They’re not just in planes. They’re also being used in boats and cars. In 1998 the United States National Transportation Safety Board (USNTSB) recommended they be used on locomotives. The Space Shuttle, however, does not use a black box recorder, as it downlinks all its important data while in flight.

6. They’re not actually stored in the cockpit. Usually they’re located near the tail end of planes (in most crashes, the nose end of the plane sustains the most damage). Some new planes feature in-flight recorders that self-eject in case of a crash.

7. Most black boxes can withstand submersion in water for up to 30 days, heat up to 1,100 degrees, pressure of 5,000 pounds per square inch and a force equal to 3,400 times their own weight.

8. The awarding-winning 2004 play Charlie Victor Romeo used cockpit voice recordings from six different air disasters as the basis for its script.

9. Chuck Palaniuk’s novel Survivor features a narrator who relays his story into a black box recorder on a plane that is going to crash.

10. Dr. Warren never directly profited from his invention. His bosses in the Australian government never filed for a patent for the device, wanting to offer it for all to use and improve upon for the greater good of air travellers everywhere.

Originally published 22 July 2010.