AINsight: Is It Time for Cockpit Video Recorders?

 - May 27, 2022, 1:40 AM

The NTSB wants them, the FAA has concerns about them, and pilot associations hate them. Cockpit image recording systems have been a hot-button topic for more than 20 years.

Now, the NTSB has renewed its position by including crash-resistant video recorders on the agency’s Most Wanted List of transportation improvements. It hopes the FAA will mandate the installation of these devices on all passenger-carrying commercial aircraft.

As an advocate for flight safety, the NTSB maintains that video images—when supplemented by flight data and voice—would be helpful in learning more about why an aircraft crashed. It may be time to act.

The NTSB first proposed the idea of cockpit image recording systems (CIRS) 22 years ago, saying that “video cameras would provide critical information to investigators about actions inside the cockpit immediately before and during the accident.” Since then, the FAA has not mandated CIRS in airliners.

But the NTSB continues to push for the installation of crash-resistant recorders since the majority—83 percent—of all fatal turbine-powered aircraft that crashed between 2005 and 2015 had no recording equipment installed.

According to the NTSB, “Such video would have been extremely helpful in determining flight crew actions in recent crashes in Texas, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.” This refers to the Atlas Air Boeing 767-300 freighter near Houston in 2019, and the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The Max, as a new airliner, has loads of flight data available, yet those two crashes were a challenge for accident investigators. 

The FAA has not mandated the installation of CIRS, citing significant privacy, security, cost, and other concerns. The agency, however, is involved in work to define other types of image recorders that could capture images of cockpit displays and show the position and selection of various flight deck controls. 

Pilot unions, including the Airline Pilots Association, International (ALPA), have long opposed the installation of CIRS in airliners. Primary objections by ALPA include an invasion of privacy and a belief that images and video would provide imprecise information during an investigation. 

ALPA said in April 2022 that it “has long recommended that any additional resources should be focused on enhancing current safety systems to record more data of a higher quality as opposed to video images, which are subject to misinterpretation and may in fact lead investigators away from accurate conclusions.”

ALPA added, “Flight deck image recorders will not improve safety and could, in fact, impede it by diverting limited resources that could be used for more valuable safety enhancements.” 

The FAA and ALPA each have concerns over privacy issues. Pilots have no greater privacy rights than other public or private transportation workers. Video is now commonplace on trucks, busses, taxis, and police cruisers. How are pilots any different when they largely work “at will” for private companies?

Video recordings would likely be governed by the same rules as cockpit voice recorders. These devices are accessed only after a crash and heard only by investigators. Voice recordings are never released to the public—only transcripts. 

ALPA’s assertion that video would provide imprecise information is questionable. A picture is truly worth a thousand words—or in this case, a thousand bits of data. Flight data is only as good as what is on the aircraft data map.

It is rare to find an aircraft that records critical items such as flight management computer entries or automation sub-modes or “armed” modes. Video would certainly show pilot actions and intent. 

Likewise, cockpit video would capture items such as smoke or nefarious activities by an intruder or operating crewmember. In addition, investigators could build a complete picture of the crash to include identifying human factors such as fatigue. For example, was the crew “studying the overhead panel” during the flight because they were exhausted?

In the Atlas Air 767 crash in Houston, the inadvertent selection of TOGA was a contributing factor to the in-flight upset. Investigators surmised the reason during post-accident simulator trials, but video would have much more efficiently and accurately provided a conclusive reason why the TOGA switch was selected. 

Cockpit video recorders are a highly charged topic. As demonstrated, NTSB and ALPA have diametrically opposed views with the FAA somewhere in between.

For the investigator, video is rich with information and would be helpful to determine the cause of a crash, whereas the pilot associations have drawn the line and clearly want to protect their membership from the misuse of images. Each position is understandable. The FAA must act and weigh the benefits of cockpit video versus other concerns such as privacy. 

For me, the choice is clear. After doing flight data analysis work for more than 20 years and flying professionally for 35 years, I know that even the most advanced aircraft have limitations regarding the quantity and quality of recorded flight data. Video recorders as proposed would be used only after an accident and would supplement existing flight data and voice recordings in a tightly controlled environment. The time has come.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.