Built to Survive
In many airline accidents, the only devices that survive are the crash-survivable memory units (CSMUs) of the flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders. Typically, the rest of the recorders' chassis and inner components are mangled. The CSMU is a large cylinder that bolts onto the flat portion of the recorder. This device is engineered to withstand extreme heat, violent crashes and tons of pressure. In older magnetic-tape recorders, the CSMU is inside a rectangular box.
Using three layers of materials, the CSMU in a solid-state black box insulates and protects the stack of memory boards that store the digitized information. We will talk more about the memory and electronics in the next section. Here's a closer look at the materials that provide a barrier for the memory boards, starting at the innermost barrier and working our way outward:
- Aluminum housing - There is a thin layer of aluminum around the stack of memory cards.
- High-temperature insulation - This dry-silica material is 1 inch (2.54 cm) thick and provides high-temperature thermal protection. This is what keeps the memory boards safe during post-accident fires.
- Stainless-steel shell- The high-temperature insulation material is contained within a stainless-steel cast shell that is about 0.25 inches (0.64 cm) thick. Titanium can be used to create this outer armor as well.
There are several tests that make up the crash-survival sequence:
- Crash impact - Researchers shoot the CSMU down an air cannon to create an impact of 3,400 Gs (1 G is the force of Earth's gravity, which determines how much something weighs). At 3,400 Gs, the CSMU hits an aluminum, honeycomb target at a force equal to 3,400 times its weight. This impact force is equal to or in excess of what a recorder might experience in an actual crash.
- Pin drop - To test the unit's penetration resistance, researchers drop a 500-pound (227-kg) weight with a 0.25-inch steel pin protruding from the bottom onto the CSMU from a height of 10 feet (3 m). This pin, with 500-pounds behind it, impacts the CSMU cylinder's most vulnerable axis.
- Static crush - For five minutes, researchers apply 5,000 pounds per square-inch (psi) of crush force to each of the unit's six major axis points.
- Fire test - Researchers place the unit into a propane-source fireball, cooking it using three burners. The unit sits inside the fire at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,100 C) for one hour. The FAA requires that all solid-state recorders be able to survive at least one hour at this temperature.
- Deep-sea submersion - The CSMU is placed into a pressurized tank of salt water for 24 hours.
- Salt-water submersion - The CSMU must survive in a salt water tank for 30 days.
- Fluid immersion - Various CSMU components are placed into a variety of aviation fluids, including jet fuel, lubricants and fire-extinguisher chemicals.
Black boxes are usually sold directly to and installed by the airplane manufacturers. Both black boxes are installed in the tail of the plane -- putting them in the back of the aircraft increases their chances of survival. The precise location of the recorders depends on the individual plane. Sometimes they are located in the ceiling of the galley, in the aft cargo hold or in the tail cone that covers the rear of the aircraft.
"Typically, the tail of the aircraft is the last portion of the aircraft to impact," Doran said. "The whole front portion of the airplane provides a crush zone, which assists in the deceleration of tail components, including the recorders, and enhances the likelihood that the crash-protected memory of the recorder will survive."