Aircraft Accidents and the Cockpit Voice Recorder

I’m teaching a class this week that is showing the National Airlines 102 accident in Bagram video.  The students I’m showing it to are professional aviation people; they’ll look beyond the tragedy to see what went wrong.  It’s not the use of a disturbing aircraft accident video that bothers me about it being played – I didn’t watch it myself; it’s the fascination or questionable need the general public have with showing it.

Videos like that are an accident investigator’s gold mine; they give an outside-the-plane analytical view of what struggles the crew went through to control the aircraft.  However, my opinion is that once an accident investigation is over, it should never be shown again.  Why not?  My reply to that question is simple: Why should it?

A video is the eyewitness to the tragic end of people’s lives.  Will anything else be learned by replaying a flight crew’s final battle or error in judgment?  Can you see or hear the pilots’ decisions or struggles?  What does it benefit the general public to watch the Challenger disintegrate on throttle up?  Do we learn much from observing the different angles United Flight 175 was swallowed by the South Tower?  Hasn’t the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination become entertainment as it is played over and over in Oliver Stone’s film, JFK?  Imagine if people were reviewing your last moments; is that something you’d want your spouse, parents or children to watch repeatedly, splashed on the television screen?

It seems to me the replayings are always accompanied by a self-proclaimed expert who is advertising a new book or their blog site.  It matters not that these experts have never rotated a plane on take-off or turned a wrench on an airliner.  They will tell everyone what the flight crew is ‘thinking’, and by the way, my book is available in e-book.  So now, the tragedy becomes a marketing scheme.

Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) tapes are in a similar class of fascinating recordings; they represent the final moments of people caught in a tragic situation; if investigators are listening to a CVR, the pilot(s) and passengers probably didn’t survive.  However, news outlets and self-proclaimed experts make extraordinary efforts to play transcript sections when they acquire them; newspapers/magazines print the conversations.  Many NTSB accident report readers flip past the factual information to go right to the CVR printouts.

But CVR information is almost hallowed ground; the last words of doomed lives come to disastrous ends.  In many cases, the accident came without warning; the events unfolded rapidly with humans acting in very human ways.  There is nothing sensationalistic about them.

While I worked at the NTSB, it was standard procedure that only Operations people – the pilots – and air traffic controllers were needed to review the CVRs.  I never complained, having no interest in participating; the CVR rarely speaks to a mechanic and, besides, what would I be listening for?

Actually, that question answered itself.  On three separate aircraft crashes, I was expected to listen to the CVR.  On one, the flight controls acted in reverse and I had to figure out why from the preflight checks; the second, I was asked by the FBI to identify noises in the background.  The third required I listen to the CVR for a Colombian airliner; I listened for a pronounced ‘bang’ in the cabin area of a cargo flight – it wasn’t an explosive decompression – it was far back in the cabin, close to the wing box and almost too distant for the cockpit mic to pick up with the cockpit door closed.  But, with a written English interpretation in front of me, I needed to listen to why the flight crew struggled with the flight controls … ALL the flight controls.  The voice recording could not separate the aircraft’s noises into separate tracks from the crew’s voices on the two cockpit mics.

Interestingly enough, although I was required to marry the flight data recorder readouts with the CVR readouts, I was able to reconcile the mysterious ‘bang’ to the true beginning of the emergency; the pilots did not react right away.  It made sense why they struggled with the controls, even though what happened was unprecedented since the Turkish Airlines Flight 981 accident in 1974: a decompression caused by a failed cargo door.  This accident did not suffer a decompression, but was caused by an improper structural modification, yet resulted in the same effect.

Each time I listened to the last minutes of that flight, the agitated commotion of the captain and first officer faded further into the back ground.  In my head, I was able to silence the crew’s back-and-forth – I already knew what words they were speaking – as I listened for the ‘bang’ and any noises that may have followed.  I don’t suggest I didn’t hear the doomed crew members, but what I needed to do was analyze the evidence; dispose of any empathy; focus on what the pilots were doing as the emergency progressed.

That’s what CVR readouts are for; what videos are for: Analysis.  In my opinion, after the analysis, the recordings should be filed away, only replayed when an accident occurs under similar circumstances.

As for me, I never listened to a CVR again.

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and the Cockpit Voice Recorder”

  1. In reading your article, I understand your points that you’re trying to make. However, being a prior aviation investigator myself, these types of equipment recordings or other data down loads became another tool to use in trying to figure out the “cause” of the accident or incident. But, even years later, some of these lessons can be used as reminders of what can happen if procedures or processes are not followed. I use some of these videos to explain to young aviators the value of “checklists” and why they use them. But more importantly, what indications should these young aviators be seeing instead of just flipping switches? This is the area I key on by using previous accident videos or even Cockpit Voice Recordings – what can be learned or how would you handle that situation. I’m in agreement though that some of these accidents or incidents shouldn’t be used for marketing purposes, but they are and always will be. But, now your getting into a whole different area as to what excites people for the purposes of profit. You see this in music from songs that advocates killing cops that I think should be outlawed, but they are not. We have to be our own filters and decide what can be learned that can help others or be a benefit in not repeating these types of horrific accidents.

    1. I definitely see your point; in a way I agreed with you when I stated that once analyzed, I argued for filing away until needed for a similar circumstance. But let me make a rebuttal: I still say that showing the accident as it plays out and listening to the actual recordings are necessary … to a point. As I mentioned, I was showing the video to professional aviation people; that option for those people should be available, but not necessarily in that medium. The actual recordings are not necessary to teach a teachable moment; transcripts, even under teachable moments are preferable because of the ability to break down the conversation, as opposed to ‘listening’ for a particular cue as I did in the aforementioned Colombian accident. These are easier to make the case for studying than listening to the actual recording; noises and conversations can be hard to pick up on the cockpit mics because they are not on separate tracks, but tape everything on one track. They are also easier to marry to the flight data recording data when you can lay them side-by-side. As for videos, I suggest picture stills are easier to analyze than the video; it captures the moment-to-moment event in a more observable way; I’ve had to do this with lawyers to make them appreciate the severity of the event. I see your point; as always, your views are good for discussion.

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