June 13, 2011 -- When Air France flight 447 crashed on a stormy night off Brazil in 2009, it took its secrets with it to the bottom of the Atlantic. There was no distress call, no sign of trouble before the plane disappeared. The plane's "black boxes" -- its flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder -- were not recovered until this spring: 228 people died.
Now, some companies propose a way to prevent future accidents from becoming so mysterious. They suggest that overseas flights be equipped with transmitters so that planes automatically send information from their black boxes to satellites overhead if they get in trouble. It would only require the addition of a laptop-size blue box, they say, something that some jets already carry.
"The technology is available, people agree it works, every technical issue has been solved," said Matthew Desch, the CEO of Iridium Communications, a firm that provides phones and data transmitters that can reach its 66 satellites in low Earth orbit. "An airplane should not go off the coast without anyone knowing where it is and what's wrong with it."
Send Black Box Data by Satellite
Iridium has joined with a Canadian firm, AeroMechanical Services Ltd., to promote a system called AFIRS -- Automated Flight Information Reporting System for short. If a plane over the ocean or remote territory goes into a dive, or loses cabin pressure, AFIRS would automatically send black box data by satellite to the airline or whoever else is designated to receive it. The pilots, who might be busy dealing with the emergency, would have to do nothing. The transmission would take seconds.
"We're at our best where communications are worst," said Richard Hayden, the CEO of AeroMechanical Services, which also calls itself Flyht. He says he already sells AFIRS hardware to 33 customers -- including charter operators, cargo carriers and airlines in other countries -- that use it to track their planes and be at the ready if they're delayed or need extra fuel. It would not be expensive, he says, to add to long-haul airliners.
Air France 447 was an Airbus 330, on a night flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. Investigators struggled to piece together what happened, and they're not done yet, two years after the crash. The plane, flying through stormy weather over the equator between the coasts of Brazil and western Africa, was in a place where high-frequency radio communications are unreliable. The pilots may have been fooled by faulty instrument readings and gone into a stall.
One source says the plane did send an automated message that it was in trouble, but the message provided no specifics. It was downlinked by a computer at Air France headquarters near Paris -- where nobody acted on it for six hours.
AFIRS, with its own power source and transmitter, could be configured to become active if a plane was in distress, quickly sending data on the plane's condition over the previous 20 minutes. Its promoters say controllers on the ground would notice immediately when a transmission came in -- and would know what was wrong.
"You just need a burst of data if the plane is in an unusual attitude," said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents. "That is an entirely doable thing."
The cost? About $50,000 to install in a plane, said Hayden. Not much, he argued, considering that a new jetliner may cost $450 million.
But while it would bring revenue for AeroMechanical Services and Iridium, the cost would be borne by airlines and manufacturers, which worry about the FAA or government agencies in other countries mandating such systems. Messages to several airlines were not immediately returned.
Understanding Airline Crashes: Send Black Box Data by Satellite
Boeing, which dominates the market for large jetliners along with Airbus, replied to ABC News' questions with a written statement.
"Boeing supports technology and research that help enhance the overall safety of the global air transportation system," it said. "Those efforts include studying possible enhancements to the survivability and accessibility of the flight data recorder.
"However, it is premature for Boeing to recommend or reject any idea at this point. As each idea is evaluated, it is critical that all aviation stakeholders — operators, regulators, investigators and manufacturers — work together to determine the feasibility and practicality of those solutions."
Goelz, the former NTSB manager, said he understood: "The industry will always say, 'Christ, this is going to kill us.'"
But he said an accident like the Air France crash is far more costly than AFIRS, which he said could help engineers prevent future crashes.
"There's nothing the aviation industry can tolerate less than a mystery," he said. "You cannot have a cloud hanging over an aircraft."