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Watch what you say in the cockpit. It's being recorded!

old man emu

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David Ronald de Mey Warren is a name that is not known by many, but many lives have been saved by his invention - the cockpit voice recorder.


Dave Warren with BlackBox Prototype.jpg


He came up with the idea for the cockpit voice recorder while investigating a crash of the world's first commercial jet airliner, the Comet, in 1953, after seeing a miniature voice recorder at a trade show. "If a businessman had been using one of these in the plane and we could find it in the wreckage and we played it back, we'd say, 'We know what caused this.'", Warren later recalled. "Any sounds that were relevant to what was going on would be recorded and you could take them from the wreckage."


As with many new concepts, especially in Australia, David had trouble getting his idea off the ground. Eventually David prepared a report that was circulated internationally but produced little interest. David drew on his early work experience as a teacher, remembering ‘show and tell’ was more effective than just ‘tell’. He decided, in his own time, to build a demonstration recorder. Thus the first ‘black box’ was born. It could continually store up to four hours of speech, prior to any accident, as well as flight instrument readings. But, still no interest from any authorities.


It was 1958, during an informal visit by Sir Robert Hardingham, the former British air Vice-Marshal, that the breakthrough occurred. David Warren was asked, during his lunchtime, to demonstrate his ‘unofficial project’. Straightaway Sir Robert saw the potential. David and his black box were almost immediately on a flight to England. The reception there was most encouraging. The Ministry of Aviation announced that the installation of the black box flight recorder for instrument readings might soon be made mandatory.


Back in Australia, plans were made for further development and production. However, a continuing lack of Australian support meant that, as the idea finally took off around the world, companies in other countries moved ahead with development, capturing the growing market.

It was only after the crash of a Fokker Friendship at Mackay (Queensland) in 1960 that the inquiry judge strongly recommended that black box flight recorders be installed in all airliners. Australia then became the first country in the world to make cockpit-voice recording compulsory.


Warren's invention, which relied on magnetic recording media, allowed easy erasing and re-recording, which made it practical for routine line service. Warren's concept of cockpit voice recording added a new dimension to instrument data in flight recorders, and has proved extremely valuable for accident investigation. Some accidents where the CVR played a prominent role were solved not by the crew's recorded voices, but by other sounds incidentally recorded on the CVR, which provided a vital clue to the accident cause.


Born on 20th March, 1925, Warren died 19 July 2010, at age 85, in Melbourne.  He was buried in a casket bearing the label "Flight Recorder Inventor; Do Not Open".


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Don't confuse "Flight DATA Recorders" with CVR's (Cockpit VOICE Recorders which also record useful background noises as you mention. The usual "Black Box" is for Flight data and is more robust and survives better because of it's construction and location. Generally far more useful information comes from the FDR and there are many other sources now with ground based equipment interrogating the aircraft plus Phones etc. Australia also invented DME( Distance Measuring Equipment). Nev

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