Black Box

The "Black Box" Voice-plus-Data Recorder is the invention attributed to Dr David Warren of what was then known as the Aeronautical Research Laboratories (ARL) at Fishermans Bend, Melbourne, Australia. At the time of the invention, ARL was part of the Commonwealth of Australia's Department of Supply - ARL later became part of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), part of Australia's Department of Defence.

Dr Warren's ideas were first published in 1954 (Black Box Ref. 1 below). Basically his proposal included:

  • Cockpit voice recording (CVR).
  • Flight data recording (FDR).
  • Retention of last two hours of information with automatic overwrite of earlier information.
  • Crashproof and fireproof record.
  • Ability to continue recording after loss of aircraft electrical power.

My involvement peaked around 1961 when the development of a pre-production prototype of airborne recording and ground station recovery equipment was undertaken prior to in-flight testing. This was my first meeting with David Warren and found him then to be an inspirational scientist well capable of "thinking outside the box". Our friendship has endured through the years.

My involvement, together with that of other scientific staff (Lane Sear and Walter Boswell, both deceased) aimed to update the early model Flight Memory system pioneered by Dr Warren (who died in July 2010) to a pre-production standard, suitable for recording cockpit voice and instrument readings on a crash-survivable medium. The Flight Memory system made use of a magnetic wire recorder which automatically saved the previous two hours of voice plus data recording and then began overwriting. That system was developed with the help of instrument maker Tych Mirfield under an ARL contract and was used in the crashproof and fireproof system with the addition of an airborne-standard connector for the flight test in which I was involved. Lane Sear and I had about equal share of the overall circuit design and Walter Boswell accomplished the assembly. The pre-production prototype was installed in the Department of Civil Aviation Fokker Friendship aircraft, VH-CAV, and the maiden test flight took place on 23 March 1962 departing from Essendon airport (in Melbourne, Australia). Recording and recovery of cockpit voice and flight data was 100% successful.

In anticipation of the coming the British Ministry of Aviation (MOA) mandatory requirement, the British firm of S. Davall & Son approached ARL for the production rights. Subsequently the MOA announced a requirement for airliners to fit an FDR but a CDR was omitted in this initial requirement. British European Airways (BEA) contracted Davall to make the recorder but the electronics contract went to Plessey. The Davall "Red Egg" accident recorder using magnetic wire as the recording medium was developed based on the ARL system and won a large part of the British and overseas market at that time.

Dr Warren, together with the team involved in the pre-production prototype development, were recognized in the Lawrence Hargrave Award granted by the Australian Division of The Royal Aeronautical Society in February 2001 (almost 40 years after the successful flight demonstration occurred). The award was presented by The Hon John Anderson MP, who was the Australian Minister for Transport at the time.

Apart from the Lawrence Hargrave Award mentioned above, Dr Warren has received a number of honours:

  • In November 2000 he was awarded the Millenial Hartnett Medal from the Royal Society (Victoria Chapter) for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce.
  • In January 2002 he was appointed an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia for his "service to the aviation industry, particularly through the early conceptual work and prototype development of the black box flight data recorder".
  • In 2007 he was included on the "Top 100 living geniuses" list compiled by a panel of six experts in creativity and innovation from Creators Synectics.
  • In Nov 2008 Qantas named one of their Airbus A380s "David Warren" in honour of his services to aviation.
  • In 2012 the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) celebrated its 80th anniversary by highlighting 80 special events over that period and his published "black box" work in 1954 was one of those.
  • In November 2013 he was inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame.
  • In March 2014 the DSTO Headquarters building in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, was named after him in recognition of his pioneering contribution to air safety.

My involvement in the Black Box development has been reported in my Publications 9, 10, 25 and 41. I still find it hard to comprehend that the work I did at about age 24 (my age at the time of the successful flight demonstration on the Fokker Friendship aircraft) is the item for which I have received most accolades.

Most of the Black Box hardware is held at the Scienceworks Museum, 2 Booker Street, Spotswood, Melbourne, Victoria 3015, Australia. The wire recorder is held at DSTO's Melbourne Laboratory, 506 Lorimer Street, Fishermans Bend, Victoria 3207, Australia.

Other sources of information on the Black Box are listed below. The best summary information on the Black Box can be found at DSTO's public website (Black Box Ref. 7). Author Jeremy Sear (Black Box Ref. 9) is a grandson of Lane Sear, a member of the team honored via the Lawrence Hargrave Award in 2001. Ref. 9 is a pdf formatted version of Jeremy Sear's original html document with updated links that I produced on 20-Jan-2013. Of special note is the book written by Janice Witham (Black Box Ref. 11) - she found "intrigue, drama, controversy, a dash of mystery and a lot of unanswered questions" in writing the book. Ironically, the topic has come alive in recent years after being dormant for about 40 years.

In 2012 schoolgirl Eve Cogan from Sydney Australia organised a petition that promoted having the Canberra airport named after Dr Warren. At the time of this update (March 2014) such naming has not transpired.

Black Box References

  1. Warren, D.R., "A device for assisting investigation into aircraft accidents ", ARL-MECH-ENG-TECH-MEMO-142, April 1954.
  2. Warren, D.R., "Tests in the development of a crash recorder", ARL-MECH-ENG-TECH-MEMO-180, April 1958.
  3. Warren, D.R., "A.R.L. Flight Memory Project Part V: A proposed programme for airborne trials", ARL-MECH-ENG-TECH-MEMO-219, March 1961.
  4. "Black Box Flight Recorder ", DSTO public website.
  5. "Dave Warren - Inventor of the black box flight recorder", DSTO public website.
  6. "Dave Warren - Biography", DSTO public website.
  7. Warren, D.R. and Fraser, K.F., "The Black Box: An Australian Contribution to Air Safety", DSTO public website.
  8. Pay TV Discovery Channel: Invention Episode 5 (second item) "Black Box", Smithsonian Institution presentation, copyright 1990.
  9. Jeremy Sear, "The ARL 'Black Box' Flight Recorder - Invention and Memory", Thesis Ref. 14567 for Bachelor of Arts (Honours), Department of History, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne, October 2001.
  10. "Documents (mainly correspondence) referring to the development of the Black Box voice-plus-data recorder", National Library of Australia archives, catalogued in the on-line database Kinetica.
  11. "Black Box", Janice Witham, February 2005, published by Thomas C. Lothian Pty Ltd, 11 Munro Street, Port Melbourne, Victoria, 3207.
  12. "Vale David Warren AO: 1925 - 2010", DSTO public website.
Airborne Black Box units

Airborne Black Box units

Ground Station Recovery unit

Ground Station Recovery unit

David Warren (left) 
and Ken Fraser holding Black Box recording unit on 8-Jun-2001

David Warren (left) and Ken Fraser holding Black Box recording unit on 8-Jun-2001

Lawrence Hargrave award Feb-2001

Lawrence Hargrave award Feb-2001

Hargrave award: from left Ruth & David Warren, Ken & Sandra Fraser

Lawrence Hargrave award occasion: from left Ruth & David Warren, Ken & Sandra Fraser