How Black Boxes Work

Flight Data Recorders

black box
One of the black boxes recovered from Air France Airbus A330, which crashed into the Atlantic in 2009.
Bureau of Analysis and Research of France (BEA)

The flight data recorder (FDR) is designed to record the operating data from the plane's systems. There are sensors wired from various areas on the plane to the flight-data acquisition unit, which is wired to the FDR. So whenever the pilot flips a switch or twiddles a knob, the FDR records each action.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that commercial airlines record a minimum of 11 to 29 parameters, depending on the size of the aircraft. Magnetic-tape recorders have the potential to record up to 100 parameters. Solid-state FDRs can record hundreds or even thousands more.

On July 17, 1997, the FAA issued a Code of Federal Regulations that requires the recording of at least 88 parameters on aircraft manufactured after Aug. 19, 2002. Here are a few of the parameters recorded by most FDRs:

  • Time
  • Pressure altitude
  • Airspeed
  • Vertical acceleration
  • Magnetic heading
  • Control-column position
  • Rudder-pedal position
  • Control-wheel position
  • Horizontal stabilizer
  • Fuel flow

Solid-state recorders can track more parameters than magnetic tape because they allow for a faster data flow. Solid-state FDRs can store up to 25 hours of flight data. Each additional parameter recorded by the FDR gives investigators one more clue about the cause of an accident.