Crash-protected flight recording systems, such as cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) and flight data recorders (FDRs), often called “black boxes,” are required on most commercial aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). CVRs record sounds like engine noises and pilots’ voices in aircraft cockpits. FDRs record important data on a plane’s operating condition during flight, like altitude and airspeed. Both are installed in a part of the aircraft most likely to “survive” a crash—usually the tail. These instruments have proven invaluable to determining the causes of a crash and preventing similar accidents from occurring; yet, the FAA doesn’t require them on most helicopters.
Nearly 4 months ago, a helicopter carrying nine people collided with a mountainside in Calabasas, California, tragically killing all on board. As the Board member on duty, I launched to Calabasas with a team of NTSB investigators just a few hours after learning of the crash. In the days following the accident, our team of investigators thoroughly examined the details surrounding the collision and I relayed our initial findings to the public. At our final press conference, I highlighted a 2006 safety recommendation issued to the FAA that the agency had refused to implement: require all transport-category rotorcraft operating under Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 (requirements for general aviation operations in the United States) and Part 135 (requirements for operating charter and on-demand flights) to be equipped with a CVR and an FDR. The transport-category helicopter in the Calabasas crash was operating under Part 135, but was not equipped with either a CVR or an FDR.
Although it’s too soon in the ongoing Calabasas helicopter investigation to know how the lack of recorders will affect our investigative work, the NTSB has long seen the value of using flight recorders to conduct comprehensive accident investigations, including those involving helicopters. At the time of the Calabasas accident, The Late Show host Stephen Colbert spoke about how a CVR was instrumental in determining what caused Eastern Air Lines flight 212 to crash in 1974, killing 72 people on board—including his father and two brothers. Colbert appealed to the FAA to require that helicopters be equipped with black boxes so we can learn more about what occurred in a crash and prevent the next one from happening.
Unfortunately, the absence of a CVR and an FDR in the Calabasas crash was not unique. In fact, the NTSB has investigated several helicopter crashes and issued recommendations to address the lack of crash-resistant flight recording technology onboard helicopters as far back as 1999 (A‑99‑60). We followed up with comparable recommendations in 2003 (A-03-62 to -65) and 2009 (A-09-9 to -11), and recently released a safety recommendation report detailing several helicopter crashes in which recorded flight data would’ve helped us better identify potential safety issues.
On May 19, the Board adopted a report on the January 29, 2019, crash of an air ambulance near Zaleski, Ohio. The investigation found that if cockpit image data had been captured, investigators would have been able to better understand why the pilot failed to maintain altitude in the final moments of the air ambulance’s flight. We reiterated two previous recommendations (A-13-12 and -13) that the FAA require crash-resistant flight recorder systems on new and existing aircraft operating under Parts 91, 121 (domestic operating requirements), and 135. As we learned at the Board meeting, these crash-resistant devices are available on the market today.
We also reiterated a recommendation (A-16-35) that the FAA require all Part 135 operators to create flight data monitoring (FDM) programs “to identify deviations from established norms and procedures and other potential safety issues.” In the Zaleski investigation, although the helicopter was equipped with FDM devices, the data was not used to verify and improve safety.
Expanding the use of recorders has been on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List (MWL) going back to 2011. The MWLs in 2014 and 2015 both specifically called for crash-resistant flight recorder systems to be adopted to enhance helicopter safety. Our most current MWL, which spans 2019 and 2020, calls on regulators to “require all Part 135 operators to install data recording devices” to meet the same safety requirements as commercial airlines.
The NTSB’s history of recommendations on flight recording systems has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers. Following a June 2019 helicopter crash in Manhattan that killed the pilot and started a fire on top of a Midtown skyscraper, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand urged the FAA to require FDRs in helicopters, just as they are required for commercial planes. In their press release, Senator Schumer stated “to know that the NTSB has been trying for years, without success, to compel the FAA to take action as it relates to making helicopters more valuable to safety by installing flight data recorders is cause for serious concern.” He went on to say that the FAA “must take another look” at the NTSB’s recommendations on FDRs.
To date, the FAA has not acted on our repeated recommendations regarding crash‑resistant and crash-protected flight recording systems for helicopters. Although the FAA encourages helicopter operators to voluntarily use crash-resistant flight recording systems, the agency stops short of mandating CVRs and FDRs. This is especially disappointing because, although flight recording systems are undoubtedly crucial to improving aviation safety, they serve another important function: they provide grieving families with answers.
The benefits of crash-resistant flight recording systems well outweigh their cost; it’s beyond time for the FAA to take action on our safety recommendations regarding them.