EU adopts new rules to better track aircraft in distress

The location of the cockpit voice recorders will be strengthened as they will have to be equipped with locating devices to accelerate their search [Ed Sweeney]

The European Commission adopted on Wednesday (16 December) new rules to improve the tracking and location of an aircraft in distress anywhere in the world.

The aim is to avoid situations such as the accident of Air France in June 2009 and Malaysian Airlines in March 2014, when the search and rescue teams could not – at least initially – find the carriers.

The new rules also add underwater locating devices to facilitate the location of a plane wreckage and the recovery of the “black boxes”.

According to the new rules, companies operating large airplanes (more than 19 passengers) and cargo aircrafts of more than 45.5 tonnes must establish an aircraft tracking system.

In the case of newly-manufactured aircrafts, the new rules specified that they have to be equipped “with robust and automatic means” to locate a flight in case of accident. These more robust systems will help to prevent the disappearance of a flight when its communications and other track systems have been interrupted.

The location of the cockpit voice recorders (CVR), one of the two “black boxes” (together with the flight data recorders), will be also strengthened as they will have to be equipped with locating devices to accelerate their search.

The CVR is a key instrument to understand what happens during a flight, especially in the case of a fatal crash. Therefore, the new technical rules also included other provisions to enhance this “black box” – which is actually orange in colour.

Accordingly, the recording length of the CVR will be extended from two hours to 25 hours of continuous recording. Meanwhile, US authorities only require two hours. 

In addition, the protection of the CVR recordings will be reinforced, in particular during their maintenance.

The Commission clarified in a press statement that these new technical specifications “do not favour any specific commercial or technical solutions”. The EU executive also considered that the norms are flexible enough to accommodate different technical options, both existing or under development, including Galileo Search and Rescue.

This EU-led system currently being deployed improves the existing search and rescue systems by allowing near real-time reception of distress messages transmitted from anywhere on earth, compared to an average waiting time of one hour. It also offers a precise location of the alerts, while the current specification for location accuracy is five km. In addition, it also uses multiple satellite detection to avoid terrain blockage in severe conditions.

Large commercial aircraft and some smaller commercial, corporate, and private aircraft are required to be equipped with two "black boxes" that record information about a flight. Both recorders are installed to help reconstruct the events leading to an aircraft accident.

One of these, the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), records radio transmissions and sounds in the cockpit, such as the pilot's voices and engine noises. The other, the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), monitors parameters such as altitude, airspeed and heading.

The older analog units use one-quarter inch magnetic tape as a storage medium and the newer ones use digital technology and memory chips. Both recorders are installed in the most crash survivable part of the aircraft, usually the tail section.

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