de Havilland Comet, the world's first passenger jet. May 18 1997 /aircraft
de Havilland Comet, the world's first passenger jet. May 18 1997 /aircraft

The plane crash that saved your life

When David Warren was six years old, his father died in one of Australia's first plane crashes. It was October 19, 1934 when the airliner Miss Hobart suddenly went missing between Launceston and Melbourne.

Miss Hobart was a four-engine, de Havilland 86 that left Western Junction airport at 9am with 10 people on-board, including David Warren's 33-year-old father, Rev Hubert Warren.

He was on his way to take over duties at St Thomas' Church in Sydney. His wife was planning to follow weeks later with their two children by boat.

The Miss Hobart was last heard from as it approached the Victorian coast at 10.20am, with a message received at Laverton stating: "Over Rodondo Is … all's well."

There were signs the plane had passed over Wilson's Promontory, but what happened next remains a mystery.

After an extensive search, the Civil Aviation Department decided the plane must have crashed into Bass Strait and there was no hope for the 12 people on-board; three women, a baby boy and eight men.

No final conclusion was ever reached by the subsequent inquiry.

Shortly before he left Tasmania, Rev Warren gave his son David a crystal radio set. The gift instilled in him a love of science that would eventually lead to his lifesaving invention.

It was 65 years ago this month that David had an idea that led to his invention that has ensured air travel is as safe as it is today - the black box flight recorder.

The de Havilland Comet, the world's first passenger jet.
The de Havilland Comet, the world's first passenger jet.

THE FAILING COMET JETS

In the aftermath of World War II, there was an influx of jet aircraft, which meant planes were flying at higher altitudes and faster than ever. It was also a time when it was difficult for authorities to figure out exactly how a plane crashed.

In 1954, Dr David Warren was working as a research scientist at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory (ARL) in Melbourne when he was involved in an investigation into the mysterious repeated crashes of the world's first jet-powered commercial aircraft, the Comet.

Launched into service in 1952, the Comet was the world's first jet airliner. But Comet flights were suspended after three planes - two over the Mediterranean in 1953 and one in 1954 over India - broke up soon after taking off, killing all on-board.

With no immediate reason as to what caused the accidents, it was up to the authorities to find out to make sure it wouldn't happen again.

It was during these meetings that Dr Warren had the idea that if researchers knew what had happened on the plane in the crucial minutes before the crash, they could help prevent further accidents.

 

 

In a 1999 interview with the Department of Defence, Science and Technology, Dr Warren said he first got his idea when he went to a trade fair and saw the world's first miniature tape recorder - the Minphon, made in Germany.

"It got me thinking about how it could help work out why airlines crashed. I thought, 'Why don't we put one of those recorders in every aircraft and let it run all the time you're in the air … then if there was a crash like the Comet, we'd have a record of what the pilot said, and in many cases, they would know what was going wrong'," Dr Warren said.

"I discussed it with my colleagues at a meeting about the Comet crash and said 'I've had an idea', and one of my colleagues said that the meeting was 'about the crash, not about what you wish had happened'. And he was right. But I couldn't get my idea out of my mind."

 

 

FROM AN IDEA TO REALITY

Dr Warren told his boss about his idea, asking whether he should patent the idea or make a flight recorder to show how it could work. But his boss couldn't understand why Dr Warren - a scientist working on fuels - was interested in recording what was said in the cockpit.

"He said, 'Dave, it's not your job'. He told me to give my idea to the instrument research team and that I should just get on with blowing up fuel tanks that might have caused the Comet crash. So I gave it to instruments … but six months later nobody had looked at it, and I wasn't allowed to work on it," Dr Warren said.

But then there was a change in staff and Dr Warren had a new supervisor who took a different view; telling him he couldn't officially work on it but he should write a report about his idea.

Dr Warren wrote a report with the title "a device for assisting at aircraft accidents" and sent it to several airlines as well as the Department of Civil Aviation.

Then, there was silence.

"But my boss said, 'Dave I think you're trying to sell ice cream to Eskimos because in Australia we haven't had a crash in a decade, we've got the world's best safety record. But crashes happen overseas so send it overseas'," Dr Warren said. "So I sent my report to the English, American and French authorities - and I didn't hear back from anyone."

 

 

But Dr Warren couldn't let his idea go. As a former teacher, he knew that "show and tell" was always more effective than just "tell."

So, he decided to have a demonstration unit made - but first he wanted to take the mini recorder into the cockpit to see what it was it was capable of recording. Dr Warren's very first prototype used steel wire, which was able to store four hours of pilot conversations as well as instrument readings.

"So we tried to record pilots speech and little blips on it so we could tell what instruments were being used - what the pilots thought and what the instruments said. It took a while to get microphones that cancelled out the background noise and focused on the pilot's voices … but we got there," Dr Warren said.

"A year later my boss said, 'Now's our chance to make one now you know what you want'. So I placed an order with an instrument maker and got the first ever model (which is now at the National Museum of Australia)."

 

 

In 1958, when the first model had been finished, the chief superintendent at the laboratory was showing a friend around when he asked Dr Warren to explain his invention. This friend happened to be Sir Robert Hardingham, the secretary of the British Air Registration Board, who thought the flight recording device was a brilliant idea. He insisted Dr Warren take his invention to England.

Two weeks later, Dr Warren was in London, presenting the "ARL Flight Memory Unit" to the Royal Aeronautical Establishment and several commercial instrument makers. The presentation was a huge hit, and it wasn't long before the British civil aviation authority made moves for the device to be manufactured and compulsory in civil aircraft.

 

 

SNOOPING DEVICE

When word got out that a "black box flight recorder" was in the works, the Federation of Australian Air Pilots was furious and labelled it "a snooping device".

According to William Hammack, author of How Engineers Create the World, the union declared, "No plane would take off in Australia with Big Brother listening."

Not surprisingly, the British owners of the failing Comet jets embraced the new invention. With British support, and manufactured in the US, the black boxes soon became standard issue on all commercial aircraft.

BLACK BOX FACTS

1. The black box isn't just one box, it's actually two. There's the cockpit voice recorder for sounds in the cockpit, such as alarms and conversations, plus, the flight data recorder that records data on the flight and plane instruments.

2. One of the biggest challenges in making the flight recorder was making sure it was "crash proof" so that, even when a plane crashed, the box would survive.

3. Each box is around the size of a shoebox, weighing around 10kg and made from very thick aluminium and fire insulation to survive in extreme heat and massive impact. It's able to survive an hour in 1100 degrees Celsius and 6000 metres under water. When a plane hits the water, a locator beacon switches on and sends a signal for 30 days (until the battery runs out).

4. While the original flight recorders were painted black, the colour was changed to orange so they're easier to find.

 

Dr. David Warren holds a pocket-sized recorder that gave him the idea of the black box. Picture: Supplied.
Dr. David Warren holds a pocket-sized recorder that gave him the idea of the black box. Picture: Supplied.

 

THE AUSSIE CONNECTION

By 1965, cockpit voice recorders were mandatory in all commercial flights; first in the US and then the rest of the world.

The first black boxes were acknowledged as an Australian invention but, sadly, that acknowledgment was quickly erased.

According to John Faulkner, from the UNSW school of aviation, the IP rights of Australia to the invention were, by this time, compromised. But in recognition of the background IP, the Department of Defence was paid just £1000.

"I joined ARL in 1965 when the work on the black box was winding down, but Dr Warren often talked to me at length about the history of the black box. He wasn't angry that he'd not been taken seriously by the powers-that-be but more upset that Australia missed out in exploiting an invention which is, today, in hundreds of thousands of aircraft," Dr Faulkner said.

As for Dr Warren, he worked at the ARL as its principal research scientist until his retirement in 1983.

It wasn't until 2002 that Dr Warren's work was officially recognised when he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his service to the aviation industry.

And, quite incredibly, Dr Warren never received any royalties from his incredible invention. He died in July 2010 at the age of 85.

 

Dr. David Warren and his wife Ruth in 2002. Picture: Supplied.
Dr. David Warren and his wife Ruth in 2002. Picture: Supplied.

MH370

The flight recorder on the missing MH370 might hold some answers to the mysterious disappearance of the plane, which was lost on March 8, 2014 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur with 239 people on-board. The plane lost contact with Malaysian Airlines just 38 minutes into the flight.

International investigators believe the flight veered thousands of kilometres off course from its scheduled route before plunging into the Indian Ocean.

If the wreckage is ever found, the black box might shed light on one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history.

Made by US company Honeywell Aerospace, the flight recorder was programmed to record cockpit communication on a two-hour loop, deleting all but the final two hours of the recording.

In normal situations, it's usually the last section of a flight that determines the cause of an accident. However, in the case of MH370, it's believed the crucial part of the recording is the period during which its communications systems were disabled. (That was when the flight took a sharp turn westward before flying silently for about seven hours.)

So, while the flight data would have survived, the conversation in the cockpit immediately after the flight lost contact with air traffic control would have been overwritten, unless power to the recorder was lost at the same time. With the battery of the beacon on the flight recorder only lasting for 30 days, the mystery of MH370 will never truly be solved unless the black box is found.

 

 

TRANSCRIPT OF A BLACK BOX RECORDING

In September 1978, Pacific Southwest Airlines collided with a Cessna as it was descending and about to land at Lindbergh Field. One hundred and thirty-five were killed on the PSA, two on the Cessna and seven on the ground.

Due to the recording and subsequent inquiry, it was found the accident happened when the PSA crew lost sight of the Cessna and did not make that fact known to the air traffic control.

 

The last words recorded by the black box before Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 collided mid-air with a Cessna. Source: Planecrashinfo.com
The last words recorded by the black box before Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 collided mid-air with a Cessna. Source: Planecrashinfo.com

LJ Charleston is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @LJCharleston


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