Backgrounder

Lightweight flight recorders

Onboard recorders

For decades, operators of large passenger aircraft have benefitted from onboard flight data recorders (FDR) and cockpit voice recorders (CVR) to advance safety. They have used FDR information for internal flight data monitoring and flight operations quality assurance programs – programs that help airlines to manage safety in a proactive manner before accidents happen.  Furthermore, FDR and CVR data are used during Transportation Safety Board (TSB) accident investigations to piece together what the aircraft was doing as well as crew actions in the minutes leading up to the occurrence.

Small operators

Small Canadian commercial aircraft are involved in 94% of all commercial air accidents. Companies operating smaller aircraft in Canada perform aerial work and air taxi operations and are not currently required to have FDRs and CVRs installed. The Black Sheep Aviation accident and many others have demonstrated that without flight recording systems, critical information that can ultimately help prevent accidents is not captured and available for analysis.

In large passenger aircraft, a FDR and CVR that record large amounts of data are easily incorporated into the design. In smaller aircraft, such is not the case as weight and the integration of new equipment can often be a limiting factor. However, lightweight flight recorder technology is now available for installation in smaller aircraft. These systems can record aircraft performance data, cockpit audio and image data and are increasingly being adopted by operators around the world.

Benefits of lightweight flight recording systems

The TSB recommends that Transport Canada work with the industry to remove obstacles and develop recommended practices for the implementation of flight data monitoring and the installation of lightweight flight recording systems for commercial operators not required to carry these systems. With these systems, operators will gain an opportunity to review objective data and to reduce risks before an accident occurs.

Investigative bodies will have a better understanding of the aircraft’s performance and the crew’s actions before the accident. With a much more detailed understanding of how aerial work and air taxi flights are conducted, operators and regulators can take concrete steps to reduce accident rates in this sector of the aviation industry.

Concerns and solutions

A long-standing concern has been the misuse of CVR information for punitive or litigation purposes. Voice and video recordings are currently strictly protected in law.  The TSB may look at ways in which this information could be used to make aviation safer—without being used to discipline employees or to take legal actions against them. In the meantime, there are no restrictions on the use of data for flight data monitoring to improve safety.

Some lightweight recording systems can have restrictions built in so that voice and video recordings can only be accessed by authorized company officials, leaving open access to aircraft performance and flight data for monitoring or quality assurance staff.

Moving forward

It is time that the aerial work and air taxi industries install lightweight flight recorders and implement flight data monitoring programs. Obstacles that stand in the way of this change must be eliminated to allow operators to access flight data recorders for legitimate safety purposes.