Open Letter to the 9-11 Commission.
Hall & Associates LLC
An Open Letter to Members of the September 11 Commission
As you explore the events of 9/11 and make recommendations as to how we might prevent similar events in the future, I trust you'll not overlook the implementation of existing technology that will make us all safer. Let me cite just one example of important technology that has been overlooked even though it is relatively easy to implement.
One of the frustrations in the investigations of September 11 was the fact that flight data and cockpit voice recorders were never recovered from the two planes that were flown into the World Trade Center, and the cockpit voice recorder from the Pentagon crash was too damaged to recover any data. Furthermore, even if the missing and damaged cockpit voice recorders had been recoverable, they would have contained data from only the final 30 minutes of the flight, as was the case with the cockpit voice recorder recovered from the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Imagine the improvements in the speed and depth of your investigation if we had flight and cockpit voice data from every flight hijacked on 9/11, and the critical information it would have provided Congress and industry as they formulated security changes in the immediate aftermath of the crashes. In your next meeting, as you're examining the September 11 plot and events on the day-of, no doubt you'll bemoan the fact you don't have access to more of this factual wealth of data.
It's not a farfetched possibility. In 1999 and 2000, when I was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Board made several key recommendations: 1) that cockpit voice recorders on most large airplanes record at least the previous two hours of operation (rather than 30 minutes), 2) that most large airplanes plane be equipped with two sets of recorders to better ensure the survival of at least one, and 3) that most large airplanes be equipped with crashworthy cockpit image recording systems that record at least the previous two hours of operation.
See http://www.ntsb.gov/Recs/mostwanted/aviation_recorders.htm for more information on these recommendations.
Since that time, I've learned more about deployable recorder systems that are currently used by our military. These voice and data recorders are not fixed to aircraft like conventional devices, but rather these 4-pound units are equipped with emergency locator transmitters thereby making them far easier to recover from both land and sea. The deployable recorder is mounted on the tail of the aircraft and is automatically ejected from the plane in the event of a crash.
Had two-hour, deployable, and redundant recording systems been in place on September 11, we would likely have found at least one of the recorders from each of the two planes in New York and we'd know a lot more about the earliest events that morning, including how the terrorists entered the cockpit.
It is regrettable that these NTSB recorder improvement recommendations are five and four years old, respectively, and still have not been required by our government. It is clear that after any aviation accident in the future, the public will ask first if it was a terrorist event. The American people will need answers and will need them quickly. In the future, flawed or incomplete data in the aftermath of a crash would be intolerable, and any delays in finding the source of the problem would undoubtedly endanger the rest of our fleet and potentially ground our aircraft, which would have devastating consequences for our economy. I encourage the 9/11 Commission to include in its recommendations the implementation of the 1999 and 2000 NTSB recommendations, along with the inclusion of deployable recorders. This will give Americans another true measure of homeland security and timely answers in the event of an aviation disaster.
Jim Hall is managing partner of Hall & Associates and was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994-2001.
Wednesday, July 14, 2004