Sometimes, regardless of pilot training, mechanical checks, and precision digital equipment, irregularities and abnormalities in aviation still happen. When they do, especially if the occurrence is highly publicised, the initial response usually involves checking today’s word. Ironically, though the term itself isn’t used within the aviation industry (they prefer the term “flight recorder”) and it’s not even black anymore, it’s typically the first thing that anyone outside of the industry thinks of when it comes to a plane’s pilot communication and navigation information.
So what is a black box and where did that confusing name come from?
The first known usage of the term is from World War 2 slang, courtesy of the Royal Air Force: in A Dictionary of RAF Slang (1945), Eric Partridge explains that: “Black box or gen box, [refers to an] instrument that enables bomb-aimer to see through clouds or in the dark.” Expounding on this, these aircraft instruments were covered in black-painted metal boxes, and, being a new electronic device, were referred to as a “box-of-tricks” or “black box” by the plane’s crew.
Additionally, there are speculations that the name comes from the field of systems engineering, which, describing an object only in terms of its inputs and outputs without knowledge of the internal mechanism, is where the second usage comes into play. Coming from a 1949 publication of the periodical The Bell System Technical Journal, is stated that: “In principle, one needs no knowledge of the physics of the transistor in order to treat it circuitwise; any ‘black box’ with the same electrical behaviour at its terminals would act in the same way.” While this may not make much sense as is, in avionics terms, it would mean knowing the input of recorded data and the output of flight data, without having to understand the system.
Though the origin can be disputed, we do know that the first time the term was used specifically to refer to the flight data recorder on an aircraft was because of a particularly rough flight from Tunis to England encountered by Australian research scientist Dr. David Warren, who recorded his account of the August 1958 flight on Mirfield Minifon (a prototype for a flight data recorder) as a makeshift demonstration. During a speaking engagement at Berkeley Square House later in the month, a Mr E. Newton of the Accident Investigation Branch, is recorded as the first person to refer to the prototype as a “black box”.
So, what are black boxes, exactly? These orange (for visibility) containers consist of the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), which records at least 88 specific points of data several times per second, and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), which is capable of recording 4 channels of audio data for a period of 2 hours. Regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization and designed to withstand any situation, modern “black boxes” are constructed to handle fire (temperatures of over 1,000 °C (1,830 °F), saltwater, and even an impact velocity of 270 knots (310 mph; 500 km/h) and a deceleration or crushing distance of 45 cm.