Queenstown aviation pioneer designs 'black box' for light aircraft

11:44 am on 27 July 2017

Light aircraft look likely to be fitted with a small scale version of an airliner's black box.

Small plane

Photo: 123RF

The Civil Aviation Authority favours the idea, as does the Transport Accident Investigation Commission, but some legal issues remain to be resolved.

A plane's black box has multiple recording devices inside a fortified container and, once recovered from a crash site, can provide invaluable information on what caused an accident.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission called for similar recorders to be installed in light aircraft last year.

Queenstown aviation pioneer Louisa Patterson, whose son died in a helicopter crash in 2015, has developed a version smaller than those used in jets - about the size of a pocket camera.

"It is a high definition video mounted in the cockpit," she said. "It will show you the instrument panel around a scope of 160 degrees and will have audio input.

"It is called the 'Eye in the Sky' for obvious reasons. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but a video is priceless and that is what this is."

Ms Patterson hoped devices like this would make it easier to understand crashes and make aviation safer.

Her business partner Tom McCready, a former air accident inspector, said the technology might improve the imprecise business of accident investigations.

"I went to a lot of accidents and quite often your information is limited," he said.

"So you get possible and probable causes and all the rest of it.

"If you have a video you can get reasonably confirmed information of what has occurred."

They are working with the Civil Aviation Authority to develop the project further but the matter isn't yet settled.

There are strict limits on legal liability for accident investigations and black box material, intended to encourage witnesses speak freely without fearing prosecution.

Don McCracken, chief executive of Oceania Aviation, said similar protection would be needed for Eye in the Sky.

"The most important thing is that the data is used for safety purposes only, and is not taken and used as evidence," he said.

"There are always a lot of reasons why accidents happen and it is important to make sure that all the appropriate processes are followed for accident investigations."

Ms Patterson pointed out that the Transport Accident Investigation Commission itself wanted devices like these installed in aircraft to help its inquiries.

She has the system in her own craft and it had already proven valuable in diagnosing a rattling sound in the engine of a helicopter.

Legal and practical matters regarding the system were still under discussion.

Civil Aviation Staff said the process was well under way but did not know when it would be finished.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs