Flight 93 question.

Today the families of the victims on flight 93 are going to be able to hear the recording of the last moments of the flight. From what I’ve heard, they will only play it once, and only for the families. Why only once and why only for the families ?

While watching a show on The Discovery Channel about airline crashes (they were looking into a problem with the Boeing 737 rudder), the narrator said that there is a law that forbids the public from hearing cockpit voice recordings. They played a computer-synthisized recording of the conversation instead.

But I’m almost positive I have heard CVRs played on the evening news for other crashes, so I don’t know if the statement was accurate. It could be that the NTSB won’t release CVRs for investigations that are still open.

I have no idea about the policies regarding this but I would assume that at some point the recordings must become a matter of public record for review by anyone. I suppose I can see why the FAA might keep them under wraps till an investigation was completed but once completed those reordings should be released. I know I’ve heard recordings from cockpit voice recorders before on TV shows so I would think sooner or later we (the public) will get to hear them.

This story, which tells how the pilots are petitioning vs. having the tapes released, gives more background:


Federal law prohibits the NTSB from releasing cockpit voice tapes. I think, though, that that this hijack-caused crash (unlike Flight 800, etc., which just “crashed”) is under the FBI’s jurisdiction now, and the FBI is not under the same restrictions as the NTSB.

Basically, the pilots don’t ever want their voice recordings publicly aired for fear of lawsuits. Also, they view the recordings as a necessary intrusion on their privacy, but still want them to remain as private as possible.

So the FBI is airing them only to the families (who say they need closure, and, let’s face it, most people are pretty sympathetic toward their situation) and only once (so people don’t take notes and use them vs. the airlines, I’d guess).

Personally, I think they should air them all. Why not? They air 911 calls.

Does anyone know when the law was passed to prohibit the release of cockpit voice recordings? I’ve heard excerpts from CVRs from crashes up to the middle-1990’s. It usually takes several years before the NTSB closes an accident investigation. Are you sure that the tapes can’t be released even after the cause of the accident has been definitively determined?


Sorry, I just don’t get this. What highly sensitive info? Like, if they spot a UFO or something?

I think they mean the last cries of the pilots and passengers. They are not pleasant to listen to, believe me - the screams of crew and passengers, the calls for wife or mother, the expletives, the desperation as they realize they are going to die, and then final silence.



So maybe some pilots were busy talking about the game, or about the cute flight attendant back in Business Class, when they should have been paying closer attn. to the plane.

Because the families believe there’s something on the tape to give them “closure,” to give credence to their belief that their relatives died heroes. In all honesty, there may be nothing but muffled grunts or cries on the tape, which will probably be an even greater source of grief for them. This is probably a case where they should let sleeping dogs lie.

“It is illegal for the National Transportation Safety Board, who regulates these recordings, to release them to the public. The recordings presented here were obtained from other legitimate sources. The airlines, who own the original recording, are legally allowed to release it if they so choose. Several others come from lawsuit settlements in which release was mandated by a court order, and yet others come from various independent investigators who chose to release the information”.

Source: http://www.airdisaster.com/cvr/

To hear CVRs from many different crashes, goto http://www.airdisaster.com/cvr/

Why the hell do pilots get this? Very few other places in the business world are allowed such privacy and where it is allowed it is understandable (e.g. attorney/doctor priviledge).

As has been supported by the courts time and again employees have NO right to privacy as regards use of company equipment. Your e-mail can be read, your phone conversations listened to, video cameras watching you and mail opened. It would seem to me a pilot in a cockpit constitutes use of company equipment and has no reasonable expectation of privacy there.

I can see why a pilot describing his affair with a stewardess might not like the thought of that becoming public record but tough. That’s the name of the game. The pilot’s know their conversations are being recorded. If they don’t want something to be a matter of record then they should just keep it to themselves or wait till after the flight.

I am so not going to that site.

:: shudder ::

Interesting. I have heard of the law but I have also heard CVR from other accidents. I recall in particular the DC10 that crashed at Sioux City in the late 80s. You could here pilots fighting the controls and in the last few seconds the altitude alarm going “WHOOP-WHOOP PULL UP WOOP-WHOOP PULL UP” and the pilots preparing for impact… it was quite interesting. There was loss of life in that crash but I think the pilots survived as did the off-duty pilot that was in the cockpit that assisted.

I wonder how that got released?

Many of the cockpit recordings that I’ve heard on various T.V. shows were from foreign airlines. Obviously, if an airline in based is another country, the secrecy laws of the USA don’t apply.

On a related note, for those of you interested in what goes on in a cockpit during those last few minutes, when a crew knows they’re doomed…there is an excellent book on this very subject:

The Black Box : All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents* by Malcolm MacPherson*

It’s a collection of black box transcripts from many crashes. Some are very touching–like the pilot who gives a loving goodbye to his wife as the plane crashes, and some are downright bizarre, like the pilot who recites a nursery rhyme while the plane spirals into the ground. And some are kinda funny, in a morbid sort of way. On some jets when they fly dangerously low, a recorded voice repeats the words: “Throttle up…Throttle up”. This happened on a flight in China, and after the crash, the black box picked up one of the pilots asking the other, in Chinese–“What does ‘throttle up’ mean?”

Another reason (I think) for the law is so if someone sells copies of the recordings to the media they can be heavily prosecuted.

Can those be real? In the one Delta one, the pilots are talking about the “dating habits of stewardesses” deliberately “in case they crash” - and at the end, it sounds…odd. I mean, are those recordings real?

Pilots routinely (more or less) screw up.

<Welcome Aboard!>

The pilot’s assn (APA? don’t remember) does not want this made public.

The airlines sure as hell don’t want it made public.

so, laws are passed - surprise!

some the horror stories are real - prior to 1958, the rule was ‘see and be seen’ - then one idiot decided to descend to give his passengers a better view of the Grand Canyon - and ran into another airliner - that was the cause of the ‘positive’ air control in effect in the US (as in: you go where/when the controller tells you)

Would you really like to know that the reason a plane went down was because the deck crew were digging through the 'pit, looking for a non-existant fire? (it happened)

I wouldn’t think the privacy issues is the big deal, but the legal consequences are not pleasant. With no release of the recordings, the NTSB is the final authority after a crash- and they have the expertise. A team of litigation lawyers looking for punitive damages could (and, I am convinced, would) use just about any comment not in the Handbook of Perfect Cockpit Communication to squeeze the airlines for money. “Ah, but didn’t the copilot comment on the ballgame last night 12 minutes before the electrical fire started? If he’d spent that time checking the wiring in the cockpit instead, my client’s relatives would be alive today! Is it your airline’s policy to not have the pilots focused on their job ?” Yuk.

And personally, I do not need to hear the last words of a man who doesn’t want to die on national TV. Which is where it would end up.

S. Norman

Spiny: I remember a case back in the 1980s or early 1990s where a married couple, both properly rated pilots, crashed in poor weather. I don’t remember enough of the details to find the case in google, but the family of the pilots sued airplane manufacturer, the engine manufacturer, and anyone else they could think of. It was explained to the jury that the NTSB conducted extensive tests on the aircraft’s engine and determined that the engine was operating properly at the time of the crash. The jury decided the engine caused the crash and awarded what I believe was the largest settlement at the time for such a case to the plaintiffs. (The NTSB determined it was pilot error in that they should not have flown into a T-storm.)

NTSB: “The engine did not cause the crash.”

Jury: “Aha! That means the engine caused the crash! And the manufacturer knowingly put the engine into the airplane!”

I don’t know if CVRs should be classified. On the one hand, the pilots don’t have a choice whether they want to have every snippet of conversation (or ever audible fart, for that matter) recorded. This is different from the earlier example someone gave about privacy in the workplace. A person can choose not to use the company e-mail or telephone systems, and their conversations are not monitored. A pilot doesn’t have that choice. On the other hand, we’re not talking about nuclear secrets here. It’s not a matter of national security. Besides, the transcripts are made available.

But given the case I (semi-)cited, I think it would be detrimental to the industry – which is necessary in our world – to make the tapes available to greedy people looking to win a jackpot that is paid for by innocent parties. It often seems as if plaintiff’s attorneys go out of their way to find jurors who know nothing about aircraft and who lack even a hint of common sense.

Without a cite I couldn’t say for certain but realize that cases with judgements such as this are routinely reduced (sometimes drastically) upon appeal. As you just showed juries frequently show themselves to be inept at deciding such cases. I’m not sure if an appeal can outright toss the lower court’s finding but that may be a possibility as well. It would seem that the case, as described, would certainly call for review by a higher court.

It depends on the job. Telemarketers often have their conversations on the phone listened to. In my office I could shadow your computer session without your knowledge as if I was looking over your shoulder. In our case we don’t but we could and reserve the right to do so.

I understand the wish to avoid the litigious issues from overzealous plaintiff attorneys. However there is a flipside to that. What if the pilots truly were negligent in some overt manner? Keeping CVRs secret allows pilots and the airlines room for sloppiness.

It would seem a better course to somehow limit or improve the litigation system that allows plaintiff attorneys to collect huge damages because a pilot was yawning at an unfortunate moment. The public interest would seem to be served best if such recording were ultimately made public.

This doesn’t even account for possible government coverup by the NTSB. TWA Flight 800 (700?) was at one point suspected of being shot down by a missile. While I do not believe that to be the case one could see where the government might wish to bury that info if it were the case. Making the CVR public and hearing, “What’s that glowing white dot coming right at us!” might dissuade the government from a coverup in the first place.