New research on whether cockpit video recorders are a benefit or an intrusion will give food for thought to both sides in the argument

Flightdeck video recorders: just the mention of them provokes an emphatic response from those with an interest in airline flight operations.

The main interested parties are air accident investigators and pilots: both of them are extremely interested, but for opposite reasons. Investigators see an additional source of information that may have shed more light on those past accidents in which the "probable cause" verdict left them feeling that they only knew part of the story - the "rudder hard-over" crashes in the early Boeing 737 series aircraft are just one example. The pilots, on the other hand, see very little investigatory advantage being added to what can already be derived from existing recording systems, and from the exhaustive examination of all available material evidence that is standard in air accident investigation. What they really worry about, however, is the potential for "Big Brother" intrusion into the minutiae of their workplace behaviour by employers and regulators, and the ultimate fear that a video recording of the last minutes of a crew's lives would, eventually, find its way on to the world wide web.

Taking the pilots' reaction first, they have a genuine cause for concern about the "Big Brother" issue and about the leaking of video data onto the web - not only film from accident investigations, but, even more likely, from ordinary flights. So if video recorders are ever installed in cockpits, it should be made standard operating procedure at the end of every flight - unless a serious incident took place during it - that the crew erase the recording. The issue then is: "What constitutes a serious incident?" Regulators, and particularly the pilots and the airlines, should agree a set of guidelines for the circumstances under which deletion should not be carried out but where there is a genuine grey area - and there would be many of these - the pilots should not be criticised for their decision to erase the data. Erasure should be the default retention should be truly exceptional. There is so much recording already going on in and around every airliner on every flight, the loss of one data source is rarely going to be critical.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority, working with the air accident investigation agencies of France and Germany, has just published the results of practical research into what benefits "cockpit image recording systems" (CIRS) could bring. It found that CIRS could yield information to clarify data from the flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder, but that visual images on their own without independent data sources to corroborate them can be misleading. One reason they cite is familiar: visual images act on the most psychologically compelling human sensor - the eyes. People believe their eyes. The trouble is CIRS will show images with limited fields of vision, so they might be telling the truth, but not the whole truth. And sometimes a poor quality image in bad light might result in misinterpretation. It did in the CAA's trial, even with professional investigators.

Is this, then, a good enough reason to drop the idea of ever using CIRS?

No. The CAA's research has highlighted the system's potential strengths and weaknesses, and the points against are far more numerous than the points in favour. If, however, the points against can be mitigated by training, policy and procedures, the benefits become more compelling. The report acknowledged that "the research data highlighted one unexpected benefit of image recorders". This was that an investigatory verdict of crew error can result from an assumed omission by the pilots. But whereas the visual image can show that the crew actually attempted a mitigating action that was foiled by technical malfunction, the FDR might only show that the action was not carried out. So cameras have the potential to do more than record mistakes.

One of the strongest arguments in favour of CIRS is to provide the answer to the question: "What did the pilots see before they did that?" The trouble is, recorders are not guaranteed to show this in a usable form because of factors ranging from camera field of view to variations in the ambient light. The CAA's basic conclusion is that the way cameras are installed and the image quality obtainable are the starting point for determining whether it is worth installing them. After that, cost/benefit and regulatory impact assessment are both essential. Nothing should be done without additional research, and the CAA study points to where that is needed.

Source: Flight International