Engineers revive black box data – Greg Smith and Jeff Barnette, aerospace engineers

Engineers revive black box data – Greg Smith and Jeff Barnette, aerospace engineers – Brief Article

Jason Tudor

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — Black box data from downed Air Force aircraft is being brought to life by a duo here who mesh Columbo-like forensic skills with Mortal Kombat-esque animation talent.

Greg Smith and Jeff Barnette, both aerospace engineers, run the mishap analysis and animation facility for the Air Force Safety Center. The two, who have been doing this for about six years, take data found inside the recorders of downed aircraft and turn it into visual aids used by safety investigation boards.

The voice and flight data, which is usually taken from deep inside the armored black box housings, is stored on either magnetic tape or on microchips. Most of the heavy movers, like C-5s and C-17s, use larger, tape-based systems, while fighters and smaller aircraft use microchip-based systems. While the models vary, they can hold between 20 minutes and 24 hours of voice or flight data.

Data goes from the tape and chips through a one-of-a-kind computer system. The system translates beeps and squawks into electronic ones and zeros, and then later into flight data — air speed, altitude and more. The Navy uses the same system, introduced to the Air Force by the Canadian government. Data has come from flight recorders submerged in saltwater and seared by 1,000-degree temperatures.

Smith and Barnette can create a number of products from flight data for investigators, specifically animation. In about two weeks’ time, Smith and Barnette can produce a three-dimensional replay of the final moments before an incident. The final product looks and feels like a PC-based flight simulation. The animation can later be moved to VHS tape or sent via the Internet to a client.

Smith and Barnette are quick to caution, however, the final animated product is strictly a recreation of events drawn from the flight recorder data.

“There’s a tendency to look up at the screen and say, ‘Ah! That’s what happened,'” Barnette said. “That’s just not the case. It’s a re-creation, and we tell people that. This isn’t a video of the mishap.”

Smith, the branch chief, said he and Barnette marry a wealth of skills and their engineering backgrounds in performing their duties. “It’s a combination of a lot of things — computer stuff, flight training and engineering,” he said. “It’s not a push-button system where you pour in the data. Sometimes, it’s just kind of cosmic.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Air Force, Air Force News Agency

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group